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What is Finishing School?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A finishing school is an institution which offers training in cultural values and norms. Most are designed for women only, and as the name implies, people attend the school after their basic education is completed, “finishing” their education with instruction in how to live in society. Many such schools focus specifically on upper class values, generating cultured, polite women who tend to do very well in society, thanks to their extensive training.

The length of a session at finishing school varies. Some programs last up to a year, while others offer much shorter, intensive terms. Women at the school are expected to conduct themselves in a well mannered way, and many schools have dress codes and other behavior requirements which are designed to remind students of the basic rules of polite behavior.

Obviously, etiquette is a big part of finishing school, and etiquette courses include everything from being a well mannered hostess to meeting foreign dignitaries. In addition to etiquette, students also learn about a variety of activities. Many schools offer instruction in the arts, such as painting and dance, and they also offer instruction in things like tennis, riding, skiing, and so forth, ensuring that their graduates will be able to enjoy themselves in a variety of situations. Language instruction has also classically been offered at this type of school.

Much of the instruction at such a school historically focused on refinement of already existing skills. Upper class women should already have been well versed in etiquette, for example, and many had already developed skills in sports and the arts. However, finishing school would have refined those skills, preparing women for a wide variety of social situations and showing them how to comport themselves as adults.

Finishing schools have greatly declined in the modern age, although some certainly do still exist, and some people bemoan the passing of the tradition. The term has also been used pejoratively to refer to women's colleges which are designed to graduate compliant, cultured women who intend to marry immediately, rather than pursuing careers.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon155197 — On Feb 23, 2011

I see a need for a kind of school that prepares a person to live on his or her own, to understand as well as be able to employ proper etiquette, to manage financially, to make a place in life for service to community and be inspired to be anything other than a burden to society.

By StreamFinder — On Sep 01, 2010

@copperpipe -- I have to say I disagree with you. I attended a finishing school for girls in the 1950s, and maybe I was just lucky, but there was no kind of misogyny taught there.

Like you say, everybody can use some polishing, and learning manners at a finishing school is as good a place as any to get that all-important polish.

By lightning88 — On Sep 01, 2010

There are some new kinds of finishing schools as well -- it's not all about tea parties and folding napkins anymore.

For instance, one famous subversive finishing school is Miss Vera's Finishing School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls.

It is designed for cross-dressers and transvestites, and includes classes on everything from manicures to cooking.

Definitely not your WASPY-debutante-country club type of finishing school!

By CopperPipe — On Sep 01, 2010

I know that finishing schools mean a lot to a lot of people, but personally, I think that charm and finishing schools are kind of outdated.

I have no problem with people learning manners, in fact, I think that a lot people could do with some manners education, but I think that all too often girls' finishing schools propagate misogynist, outdated ideas.

Even if the instructor's don't have the intention of teaching girls to be subservient or compliant, the message still comes across.

So I think it's about time for finishing schools to go...they are just not appropriate anymore.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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