Inside the world of Australian and international finishing schools

Australian Finishing School director Amanda King. Picture: Supplied
Australian Finishing School director Amanda King. Picture: Supplied

Finishing school. Deportment and grooming. Etiquette class. No matter what you want to call it, the concept seems reserved only for those regularly dining with royalty.

For most, knowledge of deportment is limited to what they have picked up from My Fair Lady's Eliza Doolittle, The Princess Diaries' Mia Thermopolis, or even Vivian Ward from Pretty Woman - even if she did learn everything she needed to know from an afternoon on Rodeo Drive.

But while some may believe that they've learnt how to "walk, talk, sit, stand, eat, dress, like a princess" by simply watching Julie Andrews, there's more to deportment and grooming than what can be picked up through osmosis.

For those who attend L'Institut Villa Pierrefeu in Switzerland, it takes up to 216 hours of intensive class time, over six weeks and involves 45 exams on course topics including social graces, floral arrangements, the art of serving afternoon tea and personal presentation.

And the cost of Swiss grooming? At the moment, the six-week course costs about $44,000.

For 65 years, l'Institut Villa Pierrefeu has coached women - and more recently, men - on how to master good manners, and is Switzerland's last traditional finishing school. Seventy years ago, however, it was a different story. Thousands of women would flock to the European country to attend traditional Swiss finishing schools. And then came the rise of the feminist, as well as a change in cultural norms, and the industry was all but wiped out by the late 1960s.

Viviane Neri, who has been the president of the school since 1972 - two decades after her mother founded it - attributed her school's longevity to its international focus and up-to-date course material, when speaking withAgence France Presse.

What goes on inside the world of finishing schools? Picture: Shutterstock

What goes on inside the world of finishing schools? Picture: Shutterstock

Amanda King was one such person to take the course in Switzerland, and is now the director of Australian Finishing School.

Based out of Sydney - with workshops held across the country - it is regarded as one of the best European-accredited finishing schools in the country.

It is also dedicated to teaching traditional refinement for the 21st century.

"Our goal, is to change attitudes about etiquette from something that people think is really antiquated into something relevant and modern again, especially with all the hot topics right now about gender, feminism, women in business and the need for essential soft skills/life skills are more necessary than ever," King says.

"It's the comeback of social etiquette in the modern world."

Australian Finishing School's roots extend from the traditional teaching with "the essence of French/European and British Manners as our foundations as they are the most refined". However, when comparing it with l'Institut Villa Pierrefeu there are some differences which even an outsider can pick up on.

How to correctly set a dining table. Picture: Supplied

How to correctly set a dining table. Picture: Supplied

When talking with King, it's clear the organisation not only focuses on the social aspect of etiquette but also brings in the professional side of things as well - acknowledging that women have swapped the dining room for the boardroom.

"People today are not interested in the old finishing school ways, such as floral arrangements. It's more about reputation management or interpersonal skills," King says.

"They wish to learn soft skills in being better communicators, feeling more confident and attractive in social situations and understanding the importance of first and lasting impressions.

"We are meeting the needs of the world today with technology and still being to hold a conversation over dinner."

Looking at the courses available at the Australian Finishing School, it offers a range of - whatmany would call more accessible - programs, starting with a two-hour business etiquette workshop for $495 to a two-day "Finishing Touch" program for $1650. There are also courses aimed and children and teenagers for $365.

The courses also look into what is culturally relevant in Australia. Due to its location, Australia has much more to do with Asia than Europe, so the Australian Finishing School branches into the differences between Asian and western culture.

"In today's increasingly global society, international etiquette is an essential resource that often determines who becomes a leader, and who gets left behind," King says.

"We could say it is your passport to feeling at ease in any situation - from effortlessly navigating the place setting of a formal meal to correctly greeting and entertaining VIP Clients."

A client at Australian Finishing School. Picture: Supplied

A client at Australian Finishing School. Picture: Supplied

But who is it that attends a finishing school?

Traditionally, finishing schools in Switzerland served young women from aristocratic European families. For example, Princess Diana, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall were educated there.

Unsurprisingly, King says the majority of people who attend Australian Finishing School are still women, but since it was founded 10 years ago there have been an increasing amount of men and boys who have taken up the courses.

Clients tend to be those seeking out personal development and may already be in affluent social circles and wish to polish their skills in formal dining or gain greater confidence. Most are also well-travelled and may come from privileged backgrounds, which King points out usually comes with a "variety of advantages".

"This might be the fact they have the opportunity to experience travel, and the social norms that come with flights, hotel, dining and cultural entertainment," King says.

"They also have greater access to more expensive and quality items of clothing and attire which can help with making a good first impression.

"Having good health and staying fit also helps an individual be more successful in both their social and business worlds.

"However, we teach all people from all walks of life that if you have passion and self-confidence with the knowledge to know what to do you will be successful."

Self-confidence in business is something Canberra's Lizzie Wagner offers clients a lot in her line of work.

Canberra's Lizzie Wagner knows the ins and outs of business etiquette. Picture: Supplied

Canberra's Lizzie Wagner knows the ins and outs of business etiquette. Picture: Supplied

For more than 30 years, the chief executive of Lizzie Wagner Group has run courses and one-on-one training on the ins and outs of business etiquette.

But while the intricacies of business etiquette - such as knowing how (or whether) to conduct work over dinner or the process of exchanging a business card with a Japanese businessman - may seem complicated, it actually comes down to the consideration of others.

"It's really being quite mindful or using your emotional intelligence to figure out or navigate your way through a particular situation," Wagner says.

"You're not always going to get it right. Sometimes, terrible things happen and this is how world incidents occur.

"Because I work globally I really see manners as a paramount thing. Even living and working in Canberra, I get flown to Perth for lunch to take people out for lunch because they're high-end sales reps for big global organisations and they have no idea about table manners."

Then, of course, there is personal presentation.

People today are not interested in the old finishing school ways, such as floral arrangements. It's more about reputation management or interpersonal skills.

Australian Finishing School director, Amanda King

Wagner believes that since workplaces started to allow employees to work from home, professional attire has slipped and people have begun to turn up to the office "all random".

"That's a lack of respect for the organisation for who you are representing and to your colleagues," she says.

"In many cases, women are just not mindful. They expose the entire grand canyon, the skirts are a little bit too short.

"Men, bless their socks, they'll wear half a bottle of aftershave and I just cough and sneeze and I just have to get out of their presence because they overdo the fragrancing.

"You're there to represent your brand, whether it's yourself or your organisation."

And that goes for work functions as well. While some may believe that a work event may be an excuse for free wine and food, Wagner reminds her clients that they're not there to eat or drink.

"It's being mindful and also really defining clear boundaries in the workplace," she says.

"But a lot of those boundaries are blurred because of social media.

"The other complexity is that people will have on LinkedIn this really amazing, high profile, fabulous CV, but on Facebook it will show how they love to run around with not many clothes and love bourbon.

"People don't realise that what you put out there is like a first impression."

As with most things in life, there is a reason for everything involved with etiquette and good manners - even the things that may seem inconsequential.

Anne Hathaway as Mia (centre) and Julie Andrews as Queen Clarisse Renaldi (right) in The Princess Diaries. Picture: Beuna Vista

Anne Hathaway as Mia (centre) and Julie Andrews as Queen Clarisse Renaldi (right) in The Princess Diaries. Picture: Beuna Vista

Aside from being good manners, Wagner says there are certain things which "go back to way back with Jesus and the last supper".

When setting a dining table, the blade of the knife always faces inward, because "if the blade was facing outward, you could easily pick it up and stab the person next to you". The reason it's polite to shake hands is because it was once was an indication that you didn't have a sword in your hand.

Other elements "just make sense". For instance, you hold chilled wine by the stem so not to warm it up. If it is red wine you want the buds in the wine to open so if you hold it by the bowl the heat of your hand helps the wine buds open and blossom.

"There is rhyme and reason for everything, but I think today, people should aim to be friendly, not brilliant," Wagner says.

"Think about your conversation - small talk builds bridges to big talk - and think about what you're wearing.

"The way you dress, the way you speak, the way you communicate, all of these things are not old school, old fashioned. They're life tools to help you navigate through this crazy new landscape that we all have to live and work in."