To curtsy or no: etiquette a big issue at royal wedding

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The wedding is on Wednesday and as everybody in Washington knows the real story is that Nancy Reagan will not curtsy but only shake hand with the Queen and other royalty.

There are things going on here in Washington, too, like the budget fight and the tax cut and whether CIA Director William J. Casey quits, but they have nothing like the mystery of Mrs. Reagan's gown for the royal wedding. And will the President's wife wear gloves? Washington newsmen who can bat off fast treatises on supply-side economics, stagflation, and the Laffer curve turn pale when confronted with Mrs. Reagan's proposed "three-piece outfit in pale peach crepe with an elongated shirt coat over a blouson top."

One fashion editors says, "You only have to wear gloves if you may be shaking hands with the Queen or Queen Mother." The events have put a different kind of story on the front page and some reporters have difficulty coping with it. They are glad to be reminded by fashion editors that Mrs. Reagan's inaugural gown was "a white Adolfo with organdy skirt and beaded top."

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According to Priscilla Tucker, a fashion writer for the Knight newspapers, Mrs. Reagan will need six or seven ball gowns "which will probably be in her favorite one- shoulder style -- a white chiffon blouson, jeweled and beaded in primavera floral motiff. . . ." Any Washington diplomatic writer at a moment like this is glad to have information of that sort.

The British press chides Mrs. Reagan on the grounds that she has decided neither to bow nor curtsy at Buckingham Palace, but to shake hands. A protocol officer, however, says tut, tut, it's all right, that nobody is going to hold a foreigner to requirements of British etiquette. Others aren't sure how to handle the handshake controversy.

[Meanwhile, UPI reports a charge by the London Daily Mail that Mrs. Reagan had made a (phantom curtsy" to Queen Elizabeth II while watching Prince Charles participat in a polo match over the weekend.

"In the end, she didn't -- quite," the Mail said, but added that Mrs. Reagan almost bowed when shaking the Queen's hand.

"She made a feint to bow," the Mail quoted a polo official as saying. "You wouldn't call it a curtsy, it was somewhere in between the two."]

At a crisis like this, some journalists turn to earlier books of etiquette and ponder, for example, the comprehensive "Buel's Manual of Self Help," published in Chicago in 1894. This contains a couple of sound chapters on "Washington etiquette" with a special reference to "foreign courts."

"The Queen of England," according to Buel's manual, "undoubtedly holds the highest social position among all the world's potentates. Her functions are extravagantly gorgeous, on which account, as well as her supreme position, presentations to her are an honor which queens of society are most ambitious of. . . ."

The queen referred to in this case, of course, is Queen Victoria; Mrs. Reagan will probably find changes since her reign. As the representative of the Unted States, for example, she won't have one problem that bothered a good many ambitious American ladies -- how to get invited to a royal reception:

"American ladies are presented at the request of our ambassador," explains Buel. "Their applications must be made to the court chamberlain at least three weeks before the reception, and those to whom the favor is granted must conform to the most rigid requirements as to dress."

If Mrs. Reagan wants help, it is still not too late to consult Buel, but probably she will make out all right. She is accompanied by Lee Annenberg, White House chief of protocol. (According to Priscilla Tucker, the protocol chief will wear "a crepe dress and jacket in mauve Chez Ninon with a small trimmed hat by Don Marshall.")

Buel proceeds:

"When a lady is presented, she takes the queen's hand, bows very low, and lifting it gracefully, kisses the back of her own hand, never that of the queen's. The lady immediately retires, bowing, keeping her face always toward the queen until the exit door is reached."

It probably has changed a lot since 1894. Still, the prospect of having to back out, keeping you eye fixed on the monarch, with three yards of train tangling your ankles, is not an enterprise anyone would undertake lightly.

Here is what might be called a blow-by-blow account of the affair:

"Upon leaving her carriage she may carry nothing in her hands, for both will be needed to manage her train. As she enters the anteroom and meets there the lord in-wait ing, she drops her train, which has been carried thus far folded carefully over her left arm.

"At this juncture the lords-in-waiting adjust and spread her train by the use of their wands, and then direct her to the presence-chamber, taking her card at the same time and passing it on to the royal attendant, who reads it aloud.

"The lady being thus announced goes forward until she approaches within a few feet of the royal person, usually to the edge of the dais, and then bows as low as possible. At this the queen will present her hand to be kissed. . . ."

That's it. All the lady has to do now is to get out. As Buel acknowledged in 1894, "Great presence of mind, and not a little dexterity, is necessary to prevent awkwardness, if not mishap, in thus moving backward, for the lady must not pick up her train, but must manage it as best she can with her feet."

Probably those lords-in-waiting, with wands, would rush in to extricate the unfortunate American if she really tied herself up in her nine-foot train. What is even more lik ely is that things have changed a lot since Queen Victoria.

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