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.
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
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
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.