The newspaper item is only 87 characters long, but it bristles with disaster. “A social cut,” reads the headline. “Mrs. Abdul Hamid has not invited Mrs. William Hohenzollern to a pink tea.” Cutting was the Victorian version of “throwing shade,” and it could be socially devastating.
There’s a political story there—Hamid was an Ottoman sultan and the brutal architect of Turkey’s massacre of thousands of Armenians. Hohenzollern was the emperor of Germany, and he spent plenty of time and money courting Turkish influence. But the item is interesting for another reason: its compact, efficient illustration of shunning in action. Why did Mrs. Hamid “cut” Mrs. Hohenzollern? Why was her dis worthy of coverage in an 1898 newspaper? (And what’s a pink tea, anyway?)
The idea was pretty simple: A person who was offended by another person “cut” them out by pretending they didn’t exist. Cutting said “you’re dead to me” without arguments or confrontation. It simply snipped an unwanted person out of an enemy’s social circle forever—and, if the cutter was powerful enough, could decimate the cuttee’s standing in polite society with a single blank stare.
Though the practice was in existence by at least the 1780s, it was first popularized by Beau Brummell, a 19th century dandy renowned for his keen sense of style. Brummell could create a fad just by wearing something, and is best known today for perfecting the art of men’s neckties. He could also drive something or someone out of style with a mere lift of the eyebrows.
Known for his epic set-downs, or insults, Brummell knew how to make his Regency-era peers squirm. Nobody—including his own rich friends—was off-limits. After falling out with Prince Regent George IV, the dandy completely ignored him in public. Legend has it that after shaking hands with everyone but the rotund prince, Brummell pointedly asked another guest about the identity of his fat friend. The cut may not have been born before that day, but Brummell turned it into an art form.
By the middle of the 19th century, cutting was so commonplace it appeared in dictionaries and etiquette books. It even had variants: The “cut direct” involved staring someone directly in the face and pretending not to know them. People who preferred the “cut sublime” simply looked at the sky until their enemy was gone.
As the practice became more common, so did acknowledgments of the cut’s power. It was a weapon to be wielded with extreme care, preferably in situations of dire social peril. Etiquette guides warned against the practice, advising gentlemen to “slow fade,” or gradually ghost someone, instead of using a full-blown cut, which “is not only very harsh, but is often attended with dangerous consequences.”
But this particularly brutal form of social ostracism served another purpose: It protected upper-class women from street harassment. An 1879 guide advised women to consider bowing to acquaintances whose friendship they did not desire, but ruefully admitted that cutting “is sometimes the only means available to rid [young ladies] of troublesome acquaintances.”
By refusing to publicly acknowledge a man, women could telegraph an implicit message about his conduct to others. Did the threat of being cut pressure men to behave themselves in the street? It’s unclear, but the practice was slowly handed over to women as the 19th century progressed. By mid-century, men were advised to avoid cutting altogether. Cutting was nothing short of a declaration of social warfare, but it became a weapon reserved for women.
Like other social customs before it, the cut eventually made its way out of fashion. In 1922, Emily Post wrote that “for one person to look directly at another and not acknowledge the other’s bow is such a breach of civility that only an unforgivable misdemeanor can warrant the rebuke.” The very pointedness of a cut, wrote Post, made the practice “not only insulting to its victim but embarrassing to every witness.”