Confessions of a Charm School Graduate…

I am going to reveal something that I have never told anyone in my adult life. In fact I don’t think I ever told anyone! I am a Wendy Ward Charm School Graduate. Yes you heard me, Charm School, and yes, I did graduate! My best friend, Mary, who was tall and gorgeous and looked like she was in her 20’s when we were only 14, was going and if she was going, so was I. By the way, I wasn’t tall and gorgeous, I was short and curve less and flat chested and looked more like a boy. My parents hope was that Wendy Ward Charm School would make me look and act more like Mary and less like her younger brother John who was also my best friend. That would have been okay with me too, at the time.

For those who don’t know about Wendy Ward Charm School, it was “ A Wonderful 6-week Finishing and Fashion course offered for Girls 4-19. “ Mrs. Jessie Ventura, the wife of Minnesota’s former governor was a graduate. There were Wendy Ward Charm Schools all over the United States in the 60′s. The classes at my Charm School took place somewhere in the bowels of the old Montgomery Ward building on University Ave, in St. Paul in a room that had no windows. We went every Saturday for six weeks and every Saturday I was scared to death. My group was all girls in their teens and I think they all wanted to grow up to be models.

We learned the social graces, poise and self-confidence, correct posture by walking with books on our heads, proper grooming, how to dress, how to sit properly in a skirt so nothing showed. We learned how to walk the run way, with our foot in the “one-o’clock” position, poised at ready to stand and look alluring, or to turn quickly and make a graceful exit. I haven’t use the skills since that time, except the proper way to wash your face!  We concluded with a fashion show wearing Montgomery Ward fashions that we picked ourselves, because by then we knew what it meant to be beautiful and what you can wear to enhance it. We learned all of that in six weeks! They gave us a Wendy Ward Charm School manual so we wouldn’t forget. I wish I could find it now.

As a young girl and well into my late teens I was a tomboy. I had to learn how to survive with three brothers and becoming a “boy” was the only way I found that worked. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress, though I was forced to wear one a few times. I always had dirt under my fingernails and band aids on my knees. I could climb trees, build forts, catch frogs, pick up snakes and eat weeds better than my three brothers and all the boys in the neighborhood. I was very disappointed when I reached the age where I had to start wearing a shirt all the time. I wasn’t Charm School material! I wasn’t interested in how to apply make up and lipstick or pluck my eyebrows.

What Charm School actually did for me was get me on that slippery slope of what society thought was true beauty. What stuck with me out of all that I learned was the awareness and embarrassment of my own flaws. I wasn’t charming and poised when I was finished nor did I have great posture and self-confidence. I learned that I had a square face, and that wasn’t as desireable as an oval, but there were things you could do with your hair and make up to make it look more oval. I bet you didn’t know that you were blessed if you had an oval face and high cheek bones and were cursed if you had a square one. I learned that tall with long legs, like my friend, was better for modeling than short and nondescript, like me. I learned that there was a standard for what beauty was, and I didn’t fall into that standard. Television, magazines and the media and my three brothers re-inforced that.

I came out of Charm School feeling more like the Ugly Duckling, than Princess Charming. For a lot of my adult life I had a skewed prospective of what beauty was and like many women I was seeing a distorted image of myself when I looked in the mirror. This shallow sense of beauty still goes on today only now there is airbrushing and advance technologies in make up, there is hair extensions and liposuction. Women are still falling into the mirror of the beauty spell and so are young girls. The subject comes up often with adolescent girls that I work with in therapy and it puts me on my soapbox about what beauty really means.

So…what is true beauty anyway, and how can we break the social spell?

Footnote: More About Wendy Ward Charm School:

The Wendy Ward Charm School was part of a national initiative launched by Montgomery Ward’s in the mid-1960s to tap into teenage fashion trends in different parts of the country. It grew into a national phenomenon at Ward’s stores across the country.

There were weekly fashion shows in Montgomery Ward’s first floor cafeteria, where the girls modeled clothes they chose themselves. The graduation ceremony consisted of a full length runway show, held in the lower level of the store and featuring the girls in a choreographed show that showcased Ward fashions for teens.

Girls in the program also had the chance to be selected for the Pacesetters Teen Board a role which combined local appearances and promotional work with community service projects. Pictures of the teen board members hung in the center of Ward’s juniors department, and they became role models for their peers.  That was the coveted prize we were all trying to win!  Dang, I wanted to win that so baaaad!

Here is a newspaper add for Wendy Ward



18 thoughts on “Confessions of a Charm School Graduate…

  1. I went to the Bloomington, IL Wendy Ward Charm School. I was 7 or 8 years old and recall the classes fondly. There were a couple of courses per year and, as graduates, we all realized a lot of attention with the local newpapers when the fashion shows were advertised, et cetera. Plus, we were invited to our community’s school and consistory functions to represent
    …such a positive influence in my childhood memories! Thank you Montgomery Ward for the poise and manners you sought to teach and promote. Brenda Love Bennett Boulder, CO

    • Hi Brenda,
      I didn’t realize they started girls so young. I don’t think that was true in St. Paul. I don’t remember getting media attention either. It sounds like it was a wonderful experience for you 🙂

  2. I remember my sister’s and I going to Wendy Ward Charm School when we were young. It was the one in Bloomington Minnesota. I think back and chuckle it was an experience. Believe me I was one of the invisible kids in high school. I still pluck my eyebrows the way we were shown and put my makeup on the same way, which by know is Old Fashioned. It was fun just didn’t change a whole lot within me.

    • Being a part of Windy Ward was so important to my life that I to have started a after school program in Baltimore ,MD for girls age 13- 18 Called ” Finding the YOU from within” I will give them everything I received from my experience from back then..

  3. I went to a really great finishing school in Chicago. I actually won a scholarship to it when I was 15.
    I disagree with what you are saying about not fostering self confidence and a positive experience.
    I had a fantastic experience going and it launched a little modeling career for me during my teen years.
    I don’t remember anyone pointing out flaws…just ways to be better and improve yourself.
    I really think our culture and society is down-right desperate to have something like this again!
    I have actually thought of starting one!
    With the total lack of proprieties in our society, we would be doing our children a favor to foster these kind of things.
    I had an experience that stayed with me my entire life!

    • I appreciate your comment and prospective Eileen. I think Finishing School was a much more sophisticated program than the 2 hour a week for 8 week program that Wards offered. I think with Wendy Ward the experience was highly dependent on the teachers and their level of skill. I agree that there is a need in society for a program that teaches the skills you learned in Finishing School.

  4. I attended in Edison, NJ. At the end of the program, I was elected by the other girls as the Miss Congeniality of our class. I was just looking for a reference to the program to use as part of my self introduction to some new colleagues and I came upon your post. Nicely done.

  5. Wow, I was also a wendy ward student. I was Madison IL. Model of the year in 1980. From the Wendy Ward program. I have continued to teach charm and modeling. I have done live theater, commercials, and film what a great air of confidence I got from the Wendy Ward program.

  6. Pingback: Beauty School Dropout Band | Home

  7. I went to Wendy ward charm school with my sister in Spartanberg,S.C. IN THE 1968 OR 1969.
    i To was a bit of a tom boy and liked to play football with the boys in our neighborhood. It was one of the most useful experiences in life that I ever had.
    Frances King-Edmond,Oklahoma

  8. I enjoyed this article and all of the comments. I didn’t attend the Wendy Ward program, but several of my friends did. Wendy Ward also sent a dazzling young woman to our 7th Grade Home Ec. class to give us some pointers. I remember being impressed with our guest presenter’s energy and confidence. I think we all were. She was probably only 18 or 19, but to us she was a sophisticated adult, and she looked quite a lot like the actress Diane Carroll.

  9. I am 55 and for some reason in the shower this morning I thought about my Wendy Ward class and looked it up. I to am a graduate and wish girls today had something to teach them what we learned. There is beauty in being gracious from the inside out.

  10. My sister and I attended the Wendy Ward Charm School in Kansas City in 1964. I learned a lot of appropriate information that I carried through life… proper way to sit, walk, stand; manners, and how to communicate with boys. Of course alot of this training went out the window in 1968 when flower power took over.
    Picking our clothes for the fashion show was a thrill. I remember exactly what I wore. It is a great memory and I am glad our mom sent us.

  11. Was thinking of the Wendy Ward Charm School today and found this online. I attended with my two sisters in the early 70’s in the Bloomington, MN store. I was about 11 or 12. I remember my mother yelling at us to get ready Saturday mornings, ushering us three girls through baths, shampoos and under the hairdryer in preparation. We had vanity tables with mirrors in class, and a mock runway for learning the walk. We picked out outfits for the fashion show, but for some reason Mother cancelled our participation in it, so we never got to complete the class. It was a tremendous let down.

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