I got thinking about what it means to be ladylike in this day and age as a result of this outfit. It’s seemingly ladylike – the modest length of swishy skirt and the form-fitting, high-necked top is something akin to what Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge might wear. But this outfit, in the right setting, is also very much not ladylike. This skirt moves likes liquid, and swings deliciously while dancing, and those heels are very high. It could, in the right hands, be the disguise of a temptress.
That means that being ladylike is something more than just wearing the costume. To use a technique I think we all learnt in high school debating – the Oxford Dictionary defines “ladylike” as
Appropriate for or typical of a well-bred, decorous woman or girl.
‘her antics were considered very undignified by her ladylike peers’
‘it wasn't ladylike to be too interested in men’
(Those examples though.)
I think it’s fair to say I lack something in the ladylike decorum department. I’m professional, dignified and gracious as required, but I think most of my friends and colleagues would affirm I have been known to use some language that would not be considered appropriate for a lady. How interested in men is too interested? I’m asking for a friend. I’m certainly not well-bred – that’s for horses and dogs, thanks – and if by “undignified antics” you mean “being assertive and/or overly confident in dance ability” then yes, guilty as charged.
However, I would claim, as my friend Lucy puts it, to be a Nice Girl. I do my best to do the right thing, and largely succeed. Although I certainly believe in dressing for yourself, I’m sensitive to when that philosophy might need to be moderated by circumstances. I know how to make polite and interested conversation with a wide range of people. Have I mentioned I want to be the Governor General? I probably have many of the features of a woman who would have once been considered ladylike – I just don’t have them all, or at least, I don’t try to be ladylike to the exclusion of my many other excellent (and sassy) features.
Is being ladylike code for being a bit prissy? Or is being ladylike a thing that just doesn’t read in modern culture?
It can’t be the latter, or we wouldn’t have Kate selling out demure floral dresses on a regular basis. It might be the former. I can’t really remember a single Kate outfit – I just have a general impression of shiny hair, nipped in waists, and hemlines just below the kneecap. However, as I say, an outfit cannot make you ladylike. Goodness only knows what Kate is like behind closed doors. I strongly suspect she’s a bloody laugh, judging entirely by that incredible period of time where William broke it off with her and she hit the clubs with her mates in an array of sequinned skirts. Surely a penchant for revenge dressing doesn’t mean you hand in the ladylike card, though?
Plus, giving an impression of being ladylike is a bit problematic, isn’t it? In a time of rape culture, slut-shaming and just the constant and, frankly, deeply annoying world of unconscious bias, does dressing like a lady put you at a disadvantage? If so, why should that be the case – surely, if I can dress for the mood I want, I should be able to dress for a ladylike mood, without fear that it will send a series of signals to those around me that I’m fair game for some discrimination.
This is the flipside of fashion, you see. You can control your image, to some extent. But that power comes with limitations – including an inability to control how society automatically responds to certain costumes. I hasten to add: this doesn’t mean that the reaction of others to your choice of outfit is right. Short skirts don’t mean that you should be the target of sexual harassment, obviously. Perhaps what is also interesting to explore though, in your personal dressing, is your own reaction to your outfit. Perhaps there are outfits you should avoid, because of how they influence your own thoughts, behaviours or actions.
As it transpired, I didn’t feel particularly ladylike in this outfit on this day. I just felt like me, in a swishy skirt. I wasn’t more graceful, decorous or serene; I wasn’t more sassy, outspoken or over-confident, either. There are, still, lots of days where a skirt is just a skirt. But, more importantly, I’ve reached a time in my life where I know myself (for better or worse) and the impact of an outfit is a result, in part, of my willing mindset when I put it on. I’m intrigued though – will I find the look that influences an unwilling me? Have you experienced this phenomena?