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The Last Swiss Finishing School

February 13, 2019

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Switzerland is a peaceful nation that hasn’t been involved in a war for 500 years. But that’s not its only claim to fame: it is also home to Institut Villa Pierrefeu (I.V. P.), a finishing school for females located in a village high above picturesque Montreux on Lake Geneva. In the October 8, 2018 issue of The New Yorker I read a fascinating article, written by Alice Gregory, who came up with a lot of eye-opening info about this rara avis institution.

Students learn the proper way to serve oneself at a formal dinner

TAKING A LOOK BACK

The school is housed in a traditional chalet that was built in 1911 for a Dutch baroness and is described as the last finishing school in Switzerland. In the 1920s, the city of Lausanne alone boasted 45 such schools. These institutions, which are unaccredited and operated by families, took the place of a male university education for many Western European females.

Switzerland and the magical beauty of the Swiss Alps

Photo: Courtesy of Traditional Home, December 2018

But, by the end of the seventies, the student body had changed. Instead of Europeans, wealthy females from Latin America, India, Japan, China, Russia and the Middle East attended these pricey schools. When the author visited last year there were 29 students for the I.V. P. six-week summer course that cost $30,000. This group included: an American mother of five; a few lawyers from India and Australia; a Harvard Business School grad from Honduras and a handful of university students from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.

THE SCHOOL’S CURRICULUM

The school does not aim to convert students from developing countries into adopting the culture of Western Europe. Rather, it wants to expose them to the oddities and taboos of nations other than their own. In addition to learning how to clean marble, address a dowager duchess and serve a luncheon, the students attend lectures devoted to the customs of 20 countries. [Comment: How to clean marble? We lived in a prewar co-op building with a lobby that had “real” marble floors and walls. A team of capable workers showed up on a regular basis to do the job. It took hours of hard labor, and to this day, I have no idea how they actually did any of it.]

THE SCHOOL’S FACULTY

I.V.P. offers classes throughout the year, but the summer faculty, who were there when Gregory attended, included: an Austrian florist, an etiquette consultant, a communications director and a butler formerly employed by the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland who gave a lecture on how to hire and manage the staff in a wealthy household. The headmistress, Viviane Neri, has run the school for nearly half a century. “In 1972 we really got the brunt of the student revolution,” she says. “Class size plummeted. Those who did attend didn’t tell their friends. They just said they were going to a language school.”

THE STUDENTS PAST AND PRESENT

A few weeks prior to their arrival the students receive an email telling them to dress in good taste. Their appearance – blow-dried hair, dry-clean only dresses – suggested an abundance of wealth and time, both of which are de-facto prerequisites of admission at I.V. P. where an emphasis on privacy borders on the extreme. It’s very difficult to come up any bold-faced names of those who attended in the past. However, Neri did mention an “exotic” student once – by saying, “The school hosted a cousin of the Emperor of Japan.”

Overall, there is a summer-camp-like camaraderie among the students according to Gregory. “They repeatedly expressed surprise that they felt so intimate with one another after only a few weeks. But why shouldn’t they have bonded? Attending the school at all was a kind of radical act of admission of social ambition.” This a good point.

A fun, fanciful approach to a butler and his charges – in an ad for Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises

DON’T FORGET: The 91st Academy Awards will be held on Sunday, February 24th at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California. 

Shaun Nelson-Henrick



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