DO keep your hands to yourself!
As you might expect of such a tightly-wound society, touching was largely to be avoided. Or, if not avoided at all, then there were strict rules as to what was acceptable and what wasn’t. And, of course, these unwritten societal rules were particularly relevant for ladies. Above all, failing to act properly could harm your reputation and, more importantly, could even seriously damage your chances of gaining entry into âhigh society’ and enjoying the many social – and economic – benefits this entailed. So, what were the rules on touching other people?
For a well-bred lady, even shaking the hands of a gentleman could be seen as being overly familiar. Indeed, handshakes were largely confined to gentlemen, and even then, a man would only shake the hands of a peer of similar social rank, never with a superior or – heaven forbid! – a servant. To get around this, ladies were permitted to gently squeeze the hand of a man she had already been introduced to, though the etiquette handbooks of the time warned against excessive displays of affection.
Between women, the rules were a bit more relaxed. Sisters were permitted to kiss one another on the cheek. A lady might also kiss a female acquaintance or friend briefly on the cheek. Again, however, such open displays of familiarity and affection were to be confined to women of the same social rank. At the same time, a lady may permit a man to put her shawl around her shoulders or help her on and off a horse. She might even offer him her hand to kiss. But lingering touches or overly-passionate hand kisses would most definitely become the subject of gossip.