June Dally-Watkins: the queen of etiquette lives on

What I didn’t know about ‘Miss Dally’

The legacy of the queen of etiquette, June Dally-Watkins, will live on in our household.

As tributes flow for the 92-year-old deportment advocate, who passed away on February 22, I have my own memories of her presence in my childhood. Unfortunately, this graceful, pristine presence loomed largely as a threat.

My mother often took the opportunity to wave her ancient copy of the The June Dally-Watkins Book of Manners for Moderns at her ill-mannered daughters. It made particular appearances at the dinner table when my sister and I failed to heed Mum’s one-word mantra: “elbows!” (meaning, please remove your elbows from the table).

Dally-Watkins was also a source of my mother’s persistent fascination with our posture. Based on tried-and-true advice from “Miss Dally” – whose credentials included being Australia’s first “supermodel” – we were made to traverse the living room while balancing a book on our heads.

Then, in her late-teens, my sister was signed up to deportment classes at the June-Dally Watkins school in Sydney. Although a reluctant convert, she actually enjoyed her time there and can now perform elaborate make-up tricks as a result.

Meanwhile, I missed out on deportment boot-camp, so the full “Dally-Watkins experience” remains somewhat of a mystery to me. So too did the marvellous Miss D herself, until, following her death, I looked into her spiritual beliefs. It turns out (as many of you will no doubt know already) that June Dally-Watkins was a Christian.

My mum's prized copy of 'Manners for Moderns'

My mum’s prized copy of ‘Manners for Moderns’

Dally-Watkins grew up with her single mother and grandparents in the tiny country town of Watson’s Creek, outside Tamworth in northern NSW. While religion was not a part of her upbringing, she revealed at an “Inspiring People” event in 2009 that she always had felt God’s presence.

When Dally-Watkins was old enough to attend high school in Tamworth, she began to attend church.

“If it was Sunday, I’d find myself in a church. I wouldn’t even know whether it was Catholic or Church of England or what. I’d just love to be there, and I’d sit there and just feel absolutely thrilled and happy and kind of full of life and joy being there.

“And when my mother and I came down to Sydney, I still find myself doing the same thing. I think I was just guided,” Dally-Watkins explained to Sheridan Voysey in a 2007 Open House interview.

Her belief was consolidated while travelling in Hong Kong, where she gave her life to Christ.

“I came back to Sydney, and everyone was looking at me and they were saying, ‘You look different. Did you fall in love?’ I just felt like another person,” Ms Dally-Watkins reportedly told the Inspiring People event.

Her Christian faith certainly didn’t stop Dally-Watkins from pursuing an unconventional life for a woman of her era.

At the age of 22, in 1950, she established the June Dally-Watkins school, where she trained thousands of Australian women in deportment and etiquette, and later opened a modelling agency and a business college.

“I always felt that a woman should have her own life. I never stopped dreaming and planning.” – June Dally-Watkins

While she was determined not to marry before the age of 30, she ended up marrying John Clifford at age 26 – after turning down a romance with Hollywood heartthrob Gregory Peck. She later became a single mother of four when she divorced Clifford in 1968. During their 15 years of marriage Dally-Watkins endured much criticism about her focus on career over motherhood.

“I remember when my father-in-law patted my husband on the shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry, son. As soon as the children start coming, she’ll give up the business.’ I thought, ‘No way. I’m going to have my own life.’ I always felt that a woman should have her own life. I never stopped dreaming and planning,” Dally-Watkins told the South China Morning Post.

Her pioneering spirit won Dally-Watkins a Medal of the Order of Australia 1993, and led her to take her etiquette classes to millions of Chinese students, after co-founding the Dally Institute in Guangzhou in 2013.

She even threw her hat into the political ring at the age of 79, standing for Reverend Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party in the NSW upper house elections in 2007. It seems fortunate she was unsuccessful, as Dally-Watkins told Open House that year: “I won’t go into politics. I would never do that. I would never have the time. But what I really want is to have Fred Nile in the upper house to look after, protect and care for all our values. Our Christian values are worthwhile values – all the good things that we want for ourselves and most particularly for our children … It’s the way my heart goes and that’s why I have gone on the ticket for Fred Nile. We need somebody there to look after what we care for.”

“I know I couldn’t be the success I’ve been, been able to work as hard as I have, if the Lord hadn’t been in my life.” – June Dally-Watkins

It’s significant to note that Dally-Watkins’ teaching did not just revolve around outward appearances. Even while modelling, she says she it was not about the glamour.

“I was always really grateful for every model job that came my way because it brought money … I was thinking it’ll help my mother and I to buy some more food and to pay the rent. Even when I went out to model, I would think of it more as a business than a glamorous thing …

“I just believe that you have to present yourself well. You have to dress in a way that’s respectable. You have to speak without bad language, and you speak correctly, and you have to have good manners. I think it’s the beauty that comes from within that makes a person truly beautiful and that grows old with you,” she told Open House.

It’s also more important to note that Dally-Watkins put her success down to her faith in God and his guidance.

“Because I work so hard and my life is so full, if I didn’t love and care and I didn’t have Christian values, maybe I wouldn’t be able to find the energy to do all the things I do,” she explained to Open House.

Dally-Watkins later added, in her refined, calm tone: “God’s good. I just feel that the Lord works in miraculous and wonderful ways. I think he does that to all people, but a lot of people don’t even know. They’re not alert, they’re not kind of aware of what’s happening.

“Incredible things happen to me every day. I know I couldn’t be the success I’ve been, been able to work as hard as I have, if the Lord hadn’t been in my life. He’s my best friend.”