08/10/2012 06:36 BST | Updated 07/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Downton Etiquette Explained - Series 3, Episode 4

It was so refreshing to get some quality drama on ITV1 last night following the farce that came before this week's stellar episode of Downton Abbey.

It was so refreshing to get some quality drama on ITV1 last night following the farce that came before this week's stellar episode of Downton Abbey. Not only was the episode rich with plot and pithy one-liners from the Dowager Countess, but there was so much etiquette to explain, which made me jump for joy as last week's column was rather scant.

Black tie collars Most evening meals at Downton are now Black Tie affairs as around this time in Britain's history men had got rather tired of the rigmarole and effort that went with White Tie.

The origin of Black Tie is hotly debated. The Americans will argue that it was first seen at the Tuxedo Club in New York, and was the doing of Pierre Lorillard and his son Griswold.

Apparently the latter turned up one evening to the club in a bastardised version of White Tie and after the initial cries of shock had died down, men decided they rather liked the idea of something less fussy and formal and so it caught on. We Brits say that it was the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, who first wore a similar outfit to an event in Monte Carlo. The jury is out and a definite answer will probably never be found.

Nowadays, when worn correctly, Black Tie involves a turndown collar on a dress shirt. But back in 1920 the dress shirts still had winged collars as it was still morphing from White Tie into what we have now.

Breakfasts at Downton

There have been many scenes at the breakfast table during the three series - if you cast your minds back to the very first episode of series 1, Lord Grantham was at the breakfast table when he received the letter to inform him of the sinking of the Titanic. In English houses, breakfast was the only meal a gentleman would serve himself and you will see - as in last night's instalment - that the breakfast foods are laid out on the sideboard behind the table. Married ladies would often choose to have breakfast in bed (i.e. they were 'served'), which is why there was the debate as to what Lady Edith should now be doing.

Bottom buttons

Matthew should have had the bottom button of his waistcoat unfastened in the scene with Lady Mary in the nursery-cum-drawing-room-to-be. This custom is thought to come from the reign of Edward VII - yes, him again. His waistline was ever expanding and so he could not fasten his button, and so it was considered impolite for his courtiers (and then subjects) to fasten theirs.

Bouillon spoons

There was a delicious scene between Carson the butler and footman Alfred involving a test on the different types of spoons. The final spoon - the one that stumped Alfred - was a bouillon spoon, which Carson explained was for the use with soup drunk from bouillon bowls. Alfred commented that he thought a soup spoon was the same size as a table spoon, and he was right. (sort of).

Back in Downton's era soup spoons were huge! They were more or less the size of tablespoons: the soup variety tapered a bit at the end and the handle was shorter. Nowadays our 'soup spoons' are what they would have called bouillon spoons (circular). The bouillon spoons were used when a broth or lighter soup was served - and when it was served there would not be as much to consume and so the spoon was smaller (5 to 5.5 inches long).


Lady Mary now wears a tiara to evening meals. This is because she is now married. Unmarried ladies (like Lady Edith - sorry to bring that up, Edith) did not wear such jewellery and in last night's episode the middle Crawley sister was indeed seen without such an accessory.

Taking your seat

I'll let her off as Lady Mary was probably thinking about the unexpected arrival of a sodden Branson, but when she returned to the table she took her seat from the incorrect side (should have been from the right-hand side of the chair).

I'm coming out

A few people have asked me what Lady Mary meant when she said 'she came out with me'. No, Lady Mary has not become a lesbian, she is referring to the now-gone practice of 'coming out to court', where girls of good families would be presented at court (in order for suitors to see who was available - it was basically a marriage market! Imagine QVC but with curtseying.)

Finally, although not in the programme itself, in one of the P&O Cruisers sponsor bumpers on ITV1, the bread knife is pointing the wrong way. My friend, and Huffington Post UK blogger Emma Clarke, is the voiceover. I have suggested she resign from future episodes to maintain her integrity.