Once upon a time, there were such things as fainting rooms, where proper Victorian women could recline in privacy when feeling weak or dizzy. Such special accommodations were necessary due to the widespread use of corsets, which restricted blood flow and made breathing difficult.
The idea seems quaint now, and perhaps even ridiculous. But so, too, does the idea of setting aside a room to receive nonexistent "special" guests and barring entry to the room on any other occasion.
That rarified chamber was the formal living room – also called a sitting room – and it wasn't long ago most houses had one, usually full of fussy or imposing furniture that family members, least of all kids, were not allowed to sit. Even if they had been, the chairs looked as though they'd be gravely offended if burdened by a human body.
Nowadays, most households don't have furnishings, let alone entire rooms, that are off-limits. Even the formal dining room has all but disappeared. But does a lack of dedicated space mean formality in general, and formal decor in particular, have gone the way of smelling salts?
"The formal attitude has not gone away, but formal isolated rooms are a thing of the past, except among the very rich and traditional," said interior decorator and television personality Christopher Lowell, of Santa Fe, N.M.
What 'formal' means
The formal style is characterized by dark, polished wood, carved antique furniture, richer textiles in deeper colors, decorative trims with tassels and fringe and accessories made of serious materials like crystal and marble. Formal living spaces are often symmetrical, with pairs of furnishings or accessories to achieve balance.
The formality of American homes and lifestyles varies by region. Southerners and New Englanders typically still make room for gracious decor and formal entertainment, said designer Katherine Shenaman of West Palm Beach, Fla.
On the whole, though, American families have long favored open floor plans with great rooms, so there are no walls to delineate where formality is appropriate and expected. Formal furnishings and decor still have a place in more open, casual homes. In fact, it may be the case that formal belongings are better appreciated because we don't sequester them but keep them on hand for everyday use.
A return to tradition
And when an occasion calls for it, "having given up our formal rooms, we want to be able to plug the formal attitude into these open spaces," Lowell said.
In an informal setting, all it takes is a properly set table to encourage decorum. Fine china, pressed, white table linens and place cards "instantly bring back a feeling of formality," Shenaman said.
Consumer trends suggest some folks are going further. After more than a decade of casual living, "the pendulum is swinging back to a more traditional look," with darker wood finishes, textural fabrics, and furniture harkening back to Dutch Colonial or William and Mary styling, said Hermine Mariaux, who writes about interior design trends for the trade weekly Home Textiles Today.
Citing the current popularity of the settee, Lowell said people are incorporating formal or old-fashion furnishings "re-engineered for flexibility and comfort."
Even with a return to tradition, Americans are all about comfort. So while old-fashioned fainting couches could conceivably come back in vogue, perhaps with a contemporary twist, that's probably not true of the whalebone corset.