Defining The Lady Code

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post called “The Lady Code.” In it, I pointed out that there is still a “lady code,” an implicit code by which we determine whether or not a woman is a lady. This code dates back to at least the Victorian era: in Victorian novels, characters always seem to know, immediately, whether or not a woman is a lady “by her dress and manner.” (I don’t remember where those words come from, but most likely a Sherlock Holmes story?)

Here is what I wrote in my last blog post: “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.” I added, “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’ve wanted to write more about this topic for a while, because I’m fascinated by the various ways we communicate, including through clothes.  And what I’ve wanted to focus on is that last bit: not wearing a cocktail dress to the ballet. In other words, the details of the code. You see, I was born in Europe, so a lot of the code, and how it applied in a modern American context, I had to figure out for myself. My mother was very strict about how I dressed, but her ideas came from her own mother, who was a lady in the old European sense. What I learned was very old-fashioned. How old-fashioned? As a child, I was taught to embroider, because that is what girl children learned . . . My grandmother told me that only gypsies wore earrings. That old-fashioned.

But I had to learn how to dress, and how dress codes operated, because I was trying to present myself as an educated, employable woman in modern America: first as a lawyer, and then as a professor. This post is about what I learned, how I think the code works: what upper-middle-class women teach their daughters, and what I will probably teach my own daughter. (Please note that in this post I am neither criticizing the code nor saying that anyone should follow it.  I’ve rebelled against it plenty myself: when I was sixteen, I pierced my own ears, with safety pins. But the code exists, and we are judged by it. So I’m trying to understand it.)  Here are some of its basic tenets:

Audrey Hepburn 2

(The images in this blog post are all, obviously, of Audrey Hepburn. I chose them because she is such a perfect representative of the lady code, partly in how she was presented by Hollywood, but mostly in what she herself chose to wear. So I’ve selected photographs in which she at least seems to have been caught off guard, in her own clothes.)

1. Your clothing should be appropriate for the occasion. You actually find this explicitly stated in Agatha Christie stories, where Hercules Poirot has some wonderful pronouncements about what ladies do and don’t wear. A lady, he says, will always dress appropriately: she will not wear city clothes in the country or vice versa. I would say that dressing inappropriately for a particular context marks you as not understanding that context, whether it’s the ballet or, more importantly, a job interview. It signals that you don’t understand the code at work in the situation. What it sometimes means is that you don’t get the job, and that is, after all, the lady code’s most important ramification nowadays: it affects employment prospects. But more broadly, a woman who is what we call well-dressed will wear rain boots in the rain, flip-flops at the beach rather than on city streets.  She will be dressed “appropriately.”

2. Your appearance, including makeup, should be “natural.”
By “natural” I don’t mean natural: culturally, we actually think of a bare face, a face with no makeup on it, as a rebellion against social norms. (Which is ironic, since in the Victorian era, a woman wearing makeup would not be considered a lady. Oh, women did wear makeup, but it had to be so discreet as to be almost invisible. And never mentioned!) “Natural” means that you look like the cultural idea of natural: discreet makeup, hair a color that could be natural even though it’s probably not. Nails neatly trimmed but either unpainted or, if painted, a light color that looks, at first glance, like a natural nail. No obvious tattoos. (Tattoos on women have become more accepted recently. But socially, they are still judged. They will still affect important aspects of one’s life, such as job prospects.  They remain markers of social class.)

3. Your jewelry and other accessories should be discreet. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where the lady code was simply what most undergraduate women wore most days, I heard a boy from a small Southern town say that a woman should never wear more than five pieces of jewelry. He gave as an example a watch, two earrings, a ring, and a bracelet. And I still remember an article in which Miss Manners (remember Miss Manners?) was asked where it was appropriate to wear an anklet (remember anklets?). She said: on the wrist, where it is called a bracelet. Coco Chanel popularized long ropes of fake pearls, but she was a fashion designer, and a lady is not fashionable. She has style, which is a different thing altogether. Fashion stands out: style is discreet and understated.  At UVA, all the undergraduate women seemed to wear a single strand of real pearls, perhaps because they had all gotten one when they turned sixteen. I did myself, as my sixteenth birthday present . . .

4. This is a complicated one: you should look feminine but not sexual. Got that? This is one of the reasons the lady code is so often criticized: it’s nuanced and complicated. And it can be used to shame women: I still remember being at a funeral at a small town in the South and hearing two women talk about a third, who had worn a black suit that had obviously not been meant for a funeral. The fit was too tight, and it showed cleavage. It was sexy. I remember that it was worn with very high stiletto heels . . . On the other hand, one thing I find useful about the code, myself, is that when I dress according to it, my body becomes functionally invisible. I am seen as a teacher or lawyer, not as a potentially sexual woman. I am not hit on . . . So the code cuts both ways, and I suppose that’s why it’s survived. It is, in one sense, a means of social control. But in another, it’s a way that women have controlled how they are perceived. And by the way, skirt length? Between the lower calf and just above the knee. Anything shorter is perceived as sexual; anything longer is perceived as properly for evening.

5. You should have style, but not be fashionable, and your clothing should signal quality, even if you bought it at Goodwill. About half of my closet comes from Goodwill . . . This is a complicated one too, isn’t it? And men wonder why women have so many clothes! By fashionable, I mean whatever is “in” this season. I teach at a very fashionable university, and I still remember the semester every undergraduate woman wore culottes. It was the semester of the culottes. By next semester, the culottes were gone, and my fashionable undergraduates would not have been caught dead in them. Dressing stylishly means dressing in a way that is timeless, and by timeless I mean in a style that has lasted for at least ten years. (That’s now long timeless is in fashion.) A white blouse, slim jeans, ballet flats, and patterned scarf would have been as appropriate on Audrey Hepburn as they are now. Another of Hercules Poirot’s wonderful statements is that whatever else she may look like, a lady will wear good quality shoes. (He solves a case because a woman pretending to be Lady Somebody is wearing cheap shoes. I kid you not.) This, by the way, is part of the reason jewelry should be discreet: because unless you are the Queen of England or Elizabeth Taylor, large jewelry inevitably looks fake, even when it’s not. Small jewelry looks real, even when it’s not. And quality is often tied to the idea of authenticity: real linen, real leather, real pearls.

Audrey Hepburn 1

I think that’s enough for now, and do realize that this list is a work in progress. It is my attempt to figure out how this language of clothes works, how we perceive dress. There are all sorts of codes — for different disciplines, for example, so that a female scientist will be expected to dress a particular way, which is different from a female elementary school teacher, and different from a female lawyer. But the lady code is a fairly broad, underlying social code that has a lot to do with how women are judged in our culture, which is why I wanted to explore it in more detail. How do I dress? Mostly the way I’ve described above, although my clothes are a little more bohemian, because they’re allowed to be. I’m a writer and a professor. I get to be a little artsy. But I do have to be conscious about how I’m perceived, because I’m often “on”: for students, colleagues, readers.

There’s a lot more to say about the above. Dress codes can operate in very different ways depending on race, social class, and other factors, and those are certainly worth exploring, although I haven’t said anything about them here. And there are people who can afford to ignore dress codes altogether. They tend to be the wealthy, who don’t need to work, or people who work in ways that give them a great deal of independence in defining their own looks, although they often have codes of their own. If you are a tattoo artist, you’d better have tattoos, and they’d better be good ones. Very few of us exist outside of these codes altogether, just as very few of us exist outside language. They are ways we communicate, sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently. Which is part of what makes them so fascinating . . .

Audrey Hepburn 3

(And if you want to know whether something you’re planning on wearing is “ladylike”? Ask yourself if Audrey Hepburn would wear it. I think that’s a pretty reliable test . . .)

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15 thoughts on “Defining The Lady Code

  1. There was a wonderful book written by the costume designer Edith Head years ago which contained the statement “the lady always wears the clothes and not the reverse.” I have never forgotten those words.

  2. All of these things apply to men too, and men are even more reluctant to talk about it. Although the stakes are certainly lower.

    • I think they may be lower for white men, but higher for black men. At least in the US, women aren’t usually killed for what they wear, but as we’ve seen recently, wearing certain clothes while a black man means your killer may get off because he felt “threatened.” Of course, in other cultures women can be physically assaulted or imprisoned for what they wear . . .

  3. I know this is one of the various complicating factors you left out, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts sometime on how this plays out with different body types, or whether that’s something you even notice. I’m thinking particularly of the idea of being “feminine but not sexual” with regard both to things like necklines and to tightness of outfits. It’s something I (and several of my friends) have run into trying to find professional clothing, especially because many of us work as teachers and/or counselors — it’s important that we not show cleavage, for example, but that’s hard when even a little bit is noticeable and when necklines must be higher to accomplish this, and there can sometimes be a fine line between something fitting well enough not to be actively un-flattering and something being so fitted that it’s inappropriate. This issue also comes up for many girls around middle school (the age I work with), when suddenly clothes start fitting their bodies differently and an outfit that was fine last year suddenly comes across very differently.

    (I was going to say that the white-blouse-with-jeans thing wouldn’t work for me either, but I went back and realized you said slim, not skinny, which makes sense — skinny jeans look awful on me, but a slight boot cut is very different from, say, a flare. I’ve pretty much given up on blouses, though.)

    • Oh, that’s a good question! And it does make a difference, as you point out. If you’re curvy, it’s harder to find clothes that aren’t what people would perceive as sexual, yet at the same time fitted enough to seem stylish. White cotton shirts a la Katherine Hepburn are pretty much out, since they will be too small on top and too large at the waist. Skinny jeans are hard to pull off anyway if you’re trying to look professional. I wear them sometimes, but I have tricks . . . Plus I’m pretty straight up and down, which makes certain styles easier (and other ones harder). Yes, slim jeans, straight skirts — and a blouse as opposed to a shirt could work with something belted, if it’s drapey enough. But it really would have to drape, be something like silk. My go-to thing is a nice t-shirt under a cardigan, sort of like a twinset, which I think would work for a curvier figure too. But you’re so right, it’s the difference between having an Audrey Hepburn figure and a Marilyn Monroe figure. They are “read” differently by the culture. And girls who are developing will be “read” and treated differently by the schools–things appropriate for a child will be considered no longer appropriate.

      • The big issue with blouses — aside from the general boxiness, which could probably be fixed if one cared enough to take things to a tailor (I generally don’t) — is the buttons. It’s just not worth going through the day worrying about whether my shirt’s going to pop open if I move the wrong way (especially being a librarian, which can involve a lot of reaching for and lifting of books), and there’s only so much one can do adding extra hooks/snaps whatever between buttons. Much easier to buy the cheap V-neck T-shirts from Target when they have them — not too low-cut (even for me), not too sheer, fitted-but-not-too-fitted, and they’re nice enough to wear with drapey A-line skirts but cheap enough to have several and not worry if they end up covered in dust.

        I do think it’s interesting, though, that the actress who came to mind was Marilyn Monroe. Monroe and Hepburn are both so iconic, I wonder how much was personality and how much was image? Or whether they were so iconic in part because their personalities matched our cultural expectations for how A Woman Who Looks Like That should act?

  4. You write, “I teach at a very fashionable university”. Pardon my effrontery, but how do people as intelligent as yourself endure being identified with an institution where garbage like this MATTERS so gravely?

    • Goodness, “garbage like this”? Human beings have been adorning themselves since we were human beings. It is part of what we do, an expression of who we are. Fashion can be a codification of social mores, an expression of individual identity, an art form. I’m interested in this because I’m interested in human beings and human culture. And I must say, “garbage” itself, the trash we generate, is also interesting. That’s why archaeologists study midden heaps. Intelligence includes being smart enough not to dismiss anything until you have investigated it thoroughly. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, as Terence said.

  5. A great, thought-provoking piece. I have observed that my most worn clothes are the oldest pieces I have–it seems so hard these days to find things that suit my style (or upbringing?) And, interestingly, those are the things I get more compliments on–perhaps because I appear more confident and “at home” in them?

  6. I agree with you. Whether we like it or not, people are immediately judged by their appearance. Getting dressed in the morning is a deliberate act, a decision of how we want to portray ourselves to the world, how we choose to be viewed by society.

  7. Very true. I am on the curvier side, and I work in an office, at my church, with the preschool program. I hit the trifecta of irritability when it comes to clothes. My job and my personality don’t quite match, though I love what I do. However, it is very difficult to dress at times when I would rather wear ripped up jeans or a hippie dress. Instead I begrudgingly put on the nice blouse and dark coloured skinny jeans with flats. Sigh. Being mature sucks sometimes!

  8. My granny also believed that earrings are for gypsies! Although she came around to liking small studs and simple hoops, as long as they weren’t loud or flashy.

    I now work in a male-dominated industry where jeans-and-t-shirt is the norm for everyone, but even that is fraught for women, where tight jeans are an invitation (Who can take her seriously when she’s dressed to pick up a guy at the bar?) and loose jeans are sloppy (Who can take her seriously when she’s obviously making no effort?).

  9. Reblogged this on The journey: Journalism between tomorrow and yesterday and commented:
    One more detail about being a lady: You should care about your brain as much as you care about your body. No lady is a real Lady if she does not have of knowledge what allows her to discuss the latest political changes in the world or of education what permits her to understand the real meaning behind Shakespeare’s 94th Sonnet.
    A lady is defined as a classy, intelligent, smart, glamorous character who is reachable but never obtainable.

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