Etiquette experts on dos and don'ts of post-Covid fashion and manners

PHOTO: Instagram/Olga Iserlis, Haya Maraka

To those who haven't contemplated the role of etiquette in their daily lives, the concept might feel foreign, or worse, dismissed as pretentious.

But that impression should be eradicated — after all, "manners are your best accessory, one that you should never take off", writes Haya Maraka in her etiquette book A Lady Knows: Modes and Manners.

Since the onset of the pandemic, etiquette has proven itself to be just as relevant as ever. "I mean, it's kind of funny that they had to tell the whole world to wash their hands," Maraka jokes. "What, were you not washing your hands before? What is this society?"

Of course, certain etiquette rules have been highlighted or evolved because of Covid-19, but its principles — treating people with politeness, kindness and compassion — remain universal.

For example, greeting people by shaking hands, kissing on the cheek and hugging one another has been minimised, but people learned to focus on facial expressions and body language to express themselves instead, according to Olga Iserlis, an etiquette expert and luxury events planner.

She emphasises the importance of communicating with authenticity, such as by smiling underneath your mask: "If you have a genuine kind of energy, no matter what, you will express it, people will see it," she says.

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Compassionate communication has become a fundamental part of etiquette, as people are constantly navigating different personal thresholds regarding Covid-19, Iserlis says.

Saying no to an event, for example, can be done gracefully if one explains their personal needs or hesitations in a kind manner accompanied with well wishes.

"By not having physical contact, I believe that certain phrases came on board [in terms of] how we communicate, how we write emails, how we welcome guests and how we talk on Zoom calls as well," says Iserlis.

People also sought to use phrases like "I'm wishing you all the best" and "keep safe" on a more regular basis to express their concern, she says.

It's also important to avoid etiquette faux pas, one of the topics that Iserlis addresses in her latest project, the Little Black Book.

Inspired by the Instagram captions she had already been posting on her account, the pocket-sized companion provides tips and thoughts on style and etiquette, which Iserlis first learned about from a grandmother who completed finishing school.

One particularly timely tip, Iserlis says, is to not take out a bottle of hand sanitiser immediately after someone shakes your hand, an act that comes across as rude.

Etiquette has also evolved on the fashion front, especially through the lens of a digitally driven lifestyle.

Given the rise of video meetings and working from home, dress codes for work and formal events have relaxed since the beginning of the pandemic, with many opting for more casual looks in their day-to-day lives. In particular, Maraka points out that wearing a T-shirt with a blazer has become more popular, and men are not wearing suits and ties as often as they used to.

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Iserlis observes a similar phenomenon, even for in-person parties that have resumed. As an example, she notes that more people are opting for dressy, embellished sneakers from Jimmy Choo or Christian Louboutin as opposed to high heels from those brands — for many, an element of glamour is still desired, but comfort is important.

Masks and hand-sanitiser carriers have also become part of the Covid-19 wardrobe, and there's a larger focus on accessories such as earrings, given the limitations of the Zoom frame. Iserlis also points out that because there's more emphasis on the face and hands on video, people are putting a little extra effort into their skincare and manicures.

Fashion over video call, then, has become more about personal style and shopping your own wardrobe — people should dress up if it makes them feel their best, as etiquette is about putting your best foot forward (even if people can't see it).

"I write in my book, dress according to your mood, so even if you do feel like wearing something ridiculous that makes you happy post-Covid, wear it," Maraka says. "Or even if it is to add a funny accessory during the Zoom meeting, [do it] if it cheers you up."

Both Iserlis and Maraka acknowledge that while dress codes have relaxed, it's likely that there'll be a return to glamorous fashion.

"On one hand, some people can't be bothered to dress up, but on the other hand, others are looking to wear glamorous and extravagant pieces, with embellishments," Iserlis says. "They [want] to change from doom and gloom into something very happy."

Maraka agrees: "You do find a lot more of that, where people are just like, let's go all out, which is nice. Life should be celebrated every day. If anything, [the message that] was taken away from the pandemic is that we really should celebrate life, because we had a lot of things in place that were not working out for anyone."

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Ultimately, though etiquette has evolved these past few years, it's important to remember that showing good manners and being kind and compassionate are evergreen.

"Covid-19 was a reset for everyone just to be more aware," Maraka says. "It's really a time for humanity to just say, how can we move together, forward, by small actions like smiling at a stranger, opening a door for an old person — [not] running away from an old person, but putting on your mask, being like, 'I see you, I'm aware.' It starts with the smallest things, as does everything in life."

Plus, it's also important to remember that one doesn't have to know everything to practise etiquette.

"I don't claim to have perfect etiquette," Maraka says. "I'd like to see [etiquette] really evolve into a way where it's not something that has a stigma to it, where it's like, 'Oh, it's for posh old ladies.'"

After all, etiquette isn't just for a certain demographic. "It's kind to be polite to everyone, especially to strangers," Maraka says.

Iserlis agrees: "Manners and etiquette is a way to live your life. It's really more about the way you behave on an everyday basis."

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.