Lady. For over a thousand years the word has donned respect upon the female gender. Today, it has women in protest and debate. What is the true meaning of being a lady today and why does the notion cause as much pride as discomfort?
From Merriam-Webster: Lady (noun, often attributive, la-dy, \'la-de\): a woman who behaves in a polite way; a woman of high social position; a man's girlfriend
The word, "lady," generally accepted as a term of respect for a woman or one describing a "respectful" woman has carried a multitude of different meanings, customs, and rules over the centuries. Moreover, it's a notion that has frequently raised questions, its accepted definition ever changing and evolving with the progress of time.
The biggest question surrounding it today - is "being a lady" an outdated concept or is it still exactly what every woman wants to be?
To understand where we are, it may be worth taking a look at where we've been:
There is no doubt that social rules for ladylike behavior had often been designed to keep women in a box. Though the exact parameters have fluctuated across time, etiquette for ladies was, by design, intended to keep women within a frame of dignity and reserve.
In the middle ages, as we well know, women had little social power. Covering oneself from head to toe when in the public eye, carrying oneself at a slow and gracious pace, and publicly appearing only in the company of males who were family were just some of the rigorous standards to adhere to. Being touched in any fashion by a stranger, swearing or appearing in public alone was simply unthinkable.
Though still kept to a strict frame of social decorum, the Renaissance became slightly more liberal, the fashion of the era alone being a testament to the fact. During the renaissance period, women's dresses saw a significant decrease in the neckline. During Restoration England, Duchesses often wore dresses so low-cut that makeup for nipples was often required. The 19th century brought social conduct back into a cage-like framework. Rules on female etiquette were tightened and dress necklines came right back up! Dressing inappropriately, using the wrong cutlery, swearing under any circumstance, or acting sexual in any way meant utter ruin.
As Western culture made its way out of the formalities of the Victorian period, women picketing in the streets for their right to vote, still adhered to lady-like decorum. 20th century suffragettes may have been treated with as much contemptment as a modern-day terrorist but many retained their status as proper ladies in spite of their revolutionary thinking, adhering to dress codes and (most) accepted social customs.
Women's roles took on a significant change as an effect of WWII. The necessities of wartime allowed "ladies" to take on roles previously regarded as strictly masculine - women worked in ammunition factories, drove trucks and dug for victory. Though women began wearing trousers as early as the 1920's, the war time created a bigger acceptance for pants in women's fashion. Because of the rationing of clothing, many women took to altering their husbands' civilian clothing to make work appropriate attire for themselves. However, wearing a proper skirt (even in war related duty) and stockings (these were a MUST) was still the more comfortably accepted social norm.
As the war closed in, the 1950's then pushed women back into the kitchen where they "belonged." In a way, the decade was a return to Victorian times. The mark of a lady was her relationship to the men in her life (her father, who she married..), what she looked like, the way she dressed and her manners.
Modern feminism spiked in the 1970s. Tired of tight, outdated standards, women rebelled against the notion of "being a lady" entirely. Suddenly, to be modern was to be as undifferentiated as possible from men. Photographs of people in the 70s show that women sported similar styles to men - women wore pants more often than before, and pant suits became common women's attire often paired with button down shirts with large, pointy collars and masculine jackets. Yves Saint Laurent's "Le Smoking" dinner suit for women captured the trend perfectly (though the suit was banned by high-end restaurants at first, trousers being considered as inappropriate for formal dining as a bathing suit).
There is no doubt that social rules for ladylike behavior had often been designed to keep women in a box. To this day our understanding of ladyhood is rooted in a sense of reserve, and perhaps that is why there is so much upheaval around the term. Female celebrities photographed topless, scarcely dressed or behaving provocatively are still represented with an undertone of disapproval (or shock) in the media. Skimpy attire and sexually provocative behavior and self-representation may be a big, accepted norm today, but does that norm fit with our notion of what's "lady-like" or "classy" nowadays? Likely not.
What is a 21st century lady then?
Is it still a notion worth pursuing today?
More so than ever, we'd like to think.
Recent years have seen a slight resurgence in the notion of what has traditionally been deemed as ladyhood. Today's fashion trends pair high heels and red lipsticks with suit pants and blazers. Cocktail hours and tea times seem to be a big part of modern-day trends and there are still strict criteria around ladyhood - women should still be well-presented, they must have propriety, diplomacy, patience, and show concern for others (i.e. have good manners); but, ladyhood today is that and so much more.
Power and femininity are no longer mutually exclusive, but rather, all the more effective when combined. Today (though there's still work to be done) women have the rights and equality that their Victorian sisters could only dream of, and with those privileges has come the responsibility of standing up and being counted. Ladyhood today isn't about good housekeeping, stockings or tight bodices. Today the notion embodies the potential of female power more than ever before. To be a lady today is to be a formidable woman, a trailblazer - a free thinking woman with a good touch of class.
To conclude, we'll leave you with a few words of wisdom from one of the classiest ladies - Coco Chanel:
"Elegance is when the inside is as beautiful as the outside."
"A girl should be two things: Classy and Fabulous."
"The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud."
"Keep your heels, head and standards high."
"Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman there is no dress."