Why women curtsy and how fashion and royal rules have dictated the show of respect

From Meghan’s crash course in deference to who Kate, Princess of Wales, does and does not have to curtsy to in the royal family…

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Although Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s overly dramatic curtsy which has caused such controversy in the recent Netflix documentary about Prince Harry and her is clearly done for comedic effect, there’s no denying it’s a skill the duchess would have had to become familiar with when she married into the royal family.

“I didn’t know I was going to meet [the queen] until moments before,” Meghan said in the docuseries. “We were in the car and we were going to Royal Lodge for lunch. And Harry was like, ‘Oh, my grandmother is here. She’s going to be there after church.’ I remember we were in the car, driving, and he’s like, ‘You know how to curtsy, right?’ And I just thought it was a joke.

“Now I’m starting to realise this is a big deal. I mean, Americans would understand this.”

With many rules in place as to who curtsies to whom, the act, which is the female equivalent of bowing, has evolved over the centuries.

How to curtsy

Deriving its name from the word “courtesy”, the motions of the curtsy and the bow used to be very similar up until the 17th century in Britain, when delineation between the genders became more pronounced.

In the Victorian era, due to the floor-length skirts women wore, a ballet-style plie movement — otherwise known as “second position” — was the common way of curtsying with feet and knees pointing outward and the back straight.

When it comes to the modern curtsy, the weight is transferred to one foot, usually the left, while the ball of your other foot is placed behind and just to the outside of the standing ankle. Eye contact should be maintained as the front knee is bent, the torso kept upright and hands remain at your sides.

“Guests should try to be empty-handed, having put down any drinks or bags,” says British etiquette and behaviour company Debrett’s. “Women should curtsy and men should bow from the neck.”

Rules about who the royal women curtsy to and when

Although a curtsy is seen as a mark of respect, traditionally, the curtsy is to the crown as a whole rather than the individual person. Foreign dignitaries, such as world leaders, as well as British commoners are not required to curtsy, even though some choose to do so.

The rules of curtsying within the royal family are quite complicated and depend on the setting and who is present, which decide who curtsies to whom.

Kate was obliged to curtsy to every member of the royal family, including Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie who outranked her as “blood princesses”. However, if Prince William was present, the York princesses would curtsy to Kate as she then outranked them.

Since the change in her title from Duchess of Cambridge to Princess of Wales, Kate no longer curtsies to Beatrice and Eugenie.

The rules, which in classic British royal family style, were observed but largely unspoken, were officially documented in the Precedence Of The Royal Family To Be Observed At Court, which was drawn up by the queen's private secretary in 2005 following then Prince Charles’s marriage to Camilla in order to ascertain who should curtsy to her.

According to The Telegraph, the document was updated in 2012 following Prince William and Kate’s wedding in order to make it clear that she should curtsy to Prince Andrew’s daughters.

Updated: December 15, 2022, 3:47 AM