The Lady Code

In Victorian novels, there is one thing characters always seem to know: whether or not a woman is a lady. And whether or not she’s a lady determines how they talk to her, treat her. It’s as though there’s “lady code” that immediately signals her status. The code has to do with the tangible, such as clothing, but also the intangible, such as attitude.

I was thinking about this recently because I saw a photograph of a college student who had written on her leg, in black marker, what the different skirt lengths meant. A skirt that came to the middle of the thigh meant “flirty.” One just below the knee meant “proper.” One at the bottom of the calf meant “prudish.” And of course one close to the top of the thigh meant “whore.” There were gradations in between.

If we look at this idea historically, it’s the same old lady code. That code always had to do, in part, with sexuality. But it also had to do with social class, and what the photograph can’t represent, being a photograph, is the extent to which the lady code is about economic and educational status.

Portrait of a Lady by Rogier van der Weyden

Portrait of a Lady
by Rogier van der Weyden

In American, we are raised with an implicit lady code, because we tend not to talk about social status. But upper-middle class girls are educated into it: they are taught what to wear, usually by their mothers. They are taught which skirts are too short, which shirts too tight. They are taught to signal their social status in coded ways. My family is Eastern European, so the lady code was much more explicit. If I wore something inappropriate, my mother told me that I was not allowed to wear it because I would look like a prostitute. For me, raised as an American child, this was a shocking statement. Here, girls are explicitly taught to wear clothing that is sexually alluring: they are taught this by every magazine and television show. But they are implicitly judged by the lady code.

Portrait of a Lady by John Hoppner

Portrait of a Lady by John Hoppner

So dressing, for a woman, is a complicated affair. When you look into your closet in the morning — and even before that, when you buy your clothes in a store or online — you are making a choice about what you want to communicate. You are speaking in a coded language. If you were raised by an upper-middle-class mother, you know the lady code. You are fluent in that particular language. You know that what you wear should vary depending on the occasion. You will not wear a cocktail dress to the ballet. (I use that as an example because it’s one I see whenever I go to the ballet: women wearing dresses that signal “I don’t go to the ballet often.” The lady code is nuanced: one kind of black dress is fine for the ballet, another kind of black dress is not.) You will not wear a suit that is either flirty or prudish to a job interview: a skirt that is too long is as wrong as a skirt that is too short.

Nicole Kidman in Portrait of a Lady

Nicole Kidman in Portrait of a Lady

Perhaps the place I saw the lady code operating most clearly was at law firms, when I was a lawyer. There was a clear, although implicit and coded, distinction between female lawyers and female secretaries. They wore different clothes, different jewelry, did their hair and makeup differently. We did not have many male secretaries in those days, so male lawyers did not need to signal their difference so clearly. What they wore was relatively simple: a suit. For women, it was not simple at all, and I still remember endless discussions about whether or not a pants suit would be appropriate, and in what circumstances. I don’t think I wore pants once, as a corporate lawyer.

I write this not to make a statement about it, because I don’t know what statement I would make: the lady code has been with us since at least the Middle Ages, and I suspect that reading each others’ clothing as though it were a language goes back to when we first started wearing clothes. Should we abolish the lady code? I doubt we can. Should we be conscious of it? Yes, probably. We have an example of absolute mastery of that code in our First Lady. Michelle Obama’s clothing choices are brilliant: always perfectly appropriate, but also implicitly referring back to one of our great national examples of a lady, Jacqueline Kennedy. Her clothes are a form of political speech that invite us to compare her husband’s administration to Camelot. There is a whole other blog post to be written about the lady code and race, but it should be written by someone who knows the situation from the inside.

What I want to do here is simply notice that the code exists, despite the fact that mothers no longer tell their daughters to be ladylike. Instead, they are taught to be “appropriate,” which means pretty much the same thing. And to notice the ways in which the code is about, and signals, social and educational status.  Which is important, because what a woman signals in that code will determine how she is treated and thought of in our society — just as it did for the Victorians.

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15 thoughts on “The Lady Code

  1. This is a great post on social custom and class. Would you object to me using it when I teach Pride and Prejudice to my AP Lit classes this year? I think it does a great job of showing the subtleties of dress and class in a way that my seniors can grasp.

    • Not at all! :) And since they’re in high school, they should be able to analyze the subtleties of their own dress as well. High school is not all that different from the Regency, in some ways — plus we have “brands” as cultural and class signifiers!

  2. The difference between a “lady” and a “woman”: a “lady” is asexual. A woman is not. A lady is polite, courteous, restrained, ‘good’; a woman is passionate, earthy, sensual. A lady is strangely divorced from her biology; a woman is not (and might have “woman problems”). A lady respects and upholds the status quo. A woman might rebel at any given moment. So when you talk about the difference about being treated like a “lady” and being treated like a woman, you’re also talking about an underlying attitude of misogyny that respects womanhood only when it’s divorced from (messy, biological, sexual, passionate, unrestrained, threatening) womanhood itself. When female-ness is sanitized + whitewashed. And female sexuality itself is regarded as something inherently vile and degrading (if a woman dresses “inappropriately” she’s not worthy of respect of any sort. Slut!)

    Just like the Victorians.

    I say, Fuck that. I am a woman, not a lady. (Although privileges of race and class, as well as an eye for style, ensure that I am respected regardless, which makes it easy for me to say that.)

    Good post.

  3. Absolutely. Hair and make-up can also make a huge difference — people were fascinated by my braids when I had long hair, but I’m much more likely to be read as an adult now that my hair is shorter. And it’s often funny trying to explain to guys the distinctions between what make-up is appropriate/comfortable when I’m teaching, what make-up is appropriate/comfortable to wear to church, and what make-up is appropriate/comfortable when I’m hanging out with friends or dressing up.

  4. … and this is why I can’t ever figure out if I truly have a form of gender dysphoria, because as a woman I hate that I have to blow valuable brain cells on this stuff at all, ever. I just want to be able to attend the ballet without worrying about how I’ll be judged for what I’m wearing or not wearing, and since I don’t know, often I just don’t go out. Guess I’m not really a lady.

  5. It also has something to do with where one lives, I suspect. The West Coast has some hold outs of the Lady (and Gentleman) Code, but not nearly as much as back East or in Europe, or in upper class areas throughout the globe, I’ll wager as well. Jeans and a camisole at the Seattle Symphony are for anyone. (And one must dress comfortably for The Ring which is underway right now). Now I think that within the Jeans-&-Camisole set there are gradations I, as a man, am not aware of. Mostly for men (including some of the richest on the planet who live here) dressing up means putting on your *nice* dockers and blue oxford shirt. Your observation of attorneys does hold out here; they’re still very well dressed people (for the most part).

  6. It’s interesting that Michelle Obama is so adept at sending out the right signifiers, since she comes from the sort of background that these codes are meant to exclude. However, I suppose she had to learn these things in order to get into the right schools and right jobs (or perhaps her family taught it to her anyway. I don’t know)

    • I suspect her family taught her. If you come from a family that is in any way marginalized, whether because of race, ethnicity, immigration status, or for any other reason, the codes become particularly important to signify that you are “respectable.” But I think she also does it in a particularly subtle and brilliant way — she’s our best-dressed First Lady since Jackie.

  7. My mother was very stylish but my stepmother had no sense of style or art. It wasn’t her fault; a pretty barren upbringing. So I found Seventeen Magazine and later, Vogue. I have always considered what I wear as costume, partly because my second love is theatre. I have grand occasion costumes, job interview costumes, poetry reading costumes; at home writing, favorite ‘lucky’ gowns and robes. As I grow older I discard pastels and move on so as not to be “Mutton in lamb’s clothing.” Once a waitress, carhop, cowgirl, Catholic schoolgirl, faux upper middle class, pouncing on well made clothing in thrift stores. In lovely homes and beautiful events, ladylike. It is
    in good taste to do so. Thank you Theodora for a chance to muse about this.

    • Phyllis, I think you’re bringing up something important that I didn’t touch on but should probably write about — the way using clothes can be fun! And a way to take on different identities . . .

      • I have had different wardrobes for different jobs. Soccer mom was routinely T-shirts and shorts. As a professor, casual dress clothes. When I go to DC to lobby for science, I am suited up and snazzy. As a secretary, I wore cute dresses and strappy-up-the-ankle sandals. Lab manager, closed-toed shoes and jeans, but cute tops. Now I’m packing for WorldCon to try to interest someone in an erotica novel. My chosen garb has zippers, buttons, snaps, hook’n eyes, ties and bows in prominent places. Yes, it is costuming and certainly fun. Thanks for a lovely post.

  8. Thank you for another thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Your observations are so consistent with mine (but, obviously, from a male’s — gentleman’s? — perspective), that it is difficult to comment further than the “thank you”.
    Is it the goal of every woman to be perceived as a lady? I suspect not. Should that goal be an objective of every woman? I hope so. As the father of a mature, capable, smart (trying to remain unbiased here), independent, pants-wearing, skirt-wearing, lady, I hope she and others like her will continue to aspire to that goal. It is already one she achieves with grace and drive. Then again, she was raised in Europe and that may have also had significant effect.
    Again, thank you.

    • Roy, I think the lady code can also be stiffling. There are times when a woman may want to come across as a lady, and times when she might not — times when it can get in the way of her being herself, expressing herself, doing something that increases her personal or social power. So I think it’s very useful for a girl to understand what clothes “say,” how they are “read” — but the more she gets it, the more she will be able to pick and choose what identity she wants to take on at any given moment. Best of luck to your daughter, who sounds terrific! :)

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