Starting back at the finish
Finishing school ... Amberlie Cameron-Smith with students Bianca Millar and Stephanie Ross. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Daddy's money and a ticket to Switzerland aren't necessary. Nor is a time machine set to 1959. Finishing school, the stuff of romantic glamour, wistful desire and the setting of many a fine chick-lit blockbuster, is alive and thriving in downtown Melbourne.
"Interestingly, reinvention involves a return to tradition."
And it's the grown-ups who are going.
Suzan Johnston Training school. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Madeleine is there because her young husband is ambitious and she wants to keep up. Susie wants to learn how to dress in a ''more corporate'' way now that she's back in the workforce. And Lisa, vulnerable after weight gain and a discriminatory office, is after a shot of confidence. They are among eight women, aged 25 to 50, attending a quick summer course at one of the country's oldest finishing schools.
The Suzan Johnston Training Organization began in 1959 as a finishing school for housewives, providing instruction on etiquette, grooming and entertaining to mothers' clubs and ladies' auxiliaries. Business and secretarial courses were introduced in the Seventies, when women went to work en masse, and courses in childcare in in the Nineties.
Now it's come full circle. The grown daughters of those groundbreaking - and busy - working mothers feel they need to be taught how to walk and talk. The finishing courses for ladies have never been more in demand.
'''In a way we've evolved back because that is what women are wanting,'' says Donna Leigh, the principal of the 54-year-old Melbourne establishment. ''They all have a reason they're here. Whether it's because their husband left them or they have a new job or for the photographs at their son's wedding, they're here to reinvent themselves.''
Interestingly, reinvention involves a return to tradition. Posture and deportment, etiquette, speech and table manners are among the topics covered and meticulously noted by the participants who in this session include a paralegal, a roads authority clerk and an engineer. They're hungry too for advice on dressing well.
''My husband works for a big corporate company and we have to go to events. I guess I'm nervous about wearing formal and semi-formal,'' says Madeleine. ''The other partners are older, professional women and know what they're doing.''
Madeleine was a 22-year-old nursing graduate from the country when an unexpected pregnancy drew her into a partnership with a boy she hardly knew. Six years and two daughters on, they're a tight team with life's possibilities opening up before them. ''We're interested in being high achieving types of people and to do that you can't be lazy,'' says Madeleine. ''I've got to fit in with the people we're hanging out with now. I want our girls to know how to act and to behave and I need to be able to show them how.''
Greetings and small talk are something you would think Susie, a longterm PA, would be adept at. She is but wants to ''take it up a notch'' to find a job with a corporate firm. ''My kids are all at high school now and I want to get a bit of my life back. I used to work in the city and I'd like to be back amongst it,'' Susie says.
Instructor Amberlie Cameron-Smith took a positive and very modern approach to social complexities such as networking, voice projection and body language. Her feedback was upbeat but impartial and honest. ''Working with women at this age and stage is wonderful because they're so appreciative of advice and so open and enthusiastic,'' says Cameron-Smith. ''Small things, tweaks in manners and posture, can change lives. It's all about confidence.''
Style advisor Colette Werden talked and walked the students through their fashion choices of the day. ''Let's get rid of all this fabric around your legs - you've got amazing legs; let's not cover them up,'' she says, as the other women murmured their agreement. Lisa, a buxom woman with a beautiful face, smiled through tears.
''Have I? I just can't believe that. Do you think so?'' The 44-year-old had been cowered by relentless sexism at the law firm where she worked and now blogs and studies at home. The two-day course is her second in two years - free repeats are offered - because, she says, she needed to "refresh and rejuvenate".
"My mother made me do all the modelling and acting classes from a young age. But I love this. When I went back to work on the Monday after the last one, the boss said 'what did you do to your hair?' It gives you that extra something, like a style retreat. It's something for yourself."