Why It's Fashionable to Be a Lady Again

The term lady is undergoing a process of reclamation


The Duchess of Cambridge. Picture / Getty Images.

Ladies, do you long to be a lady and call other ladies “lady”? Well, hide your ladyness no longer. Because the lady is back.

For a long time, the lady had vanished from everyday discourse. Ladies’ nights were replaced with “girls’ nights out”.

Ladies’ tennis was renamed “women’s tennis”. For a while, it looked as if the term “I’m a lady” belonged exclusively to David Walliams. Well, rejoice, actual ladies, because those days are gone.

New BBC documentary How to Be a Lady searches for the “disappearing social type” at debutante balls and riding schools. She visits her grandmother’s alma mater, Cheltenham Ladies’ College, and learns how to open a door properly. This is difficult, apparently.

Yes, it is fascinating to wonder who the new Mitfords might be. But I wonder if this is missing the point by taking things a bit too literally. There are lots of daughters of Russian oligarchs who want to wear taffeta, learn to dance a mazurka and pretend they’re landed gentry. But these "ladies" will always be a minority.

In the 21st century, it's the self-proclaimed ladies of the majority  with zero interest in being to the manor born  who are far more interesting.

I’m talking about the thousands of young women who, on their way out to a nightclub, gee themselves up with a blast of Destiny’s Child ("All you ladies, leave yo man at home..."); the twentysomethings on a riotous hen weekend wearing "Pink Ladies' slogan T-shirts with their own names embossed on the back; and the army of fans discovering a newfound support of women's football via Liverpool Ladies, Arsenal Ladies, Chelsea Ladies...

It's through these women that the word "lady" is undergoing a process of reinvention and reclamation. I noticed this when I found myself apologising for my (occasionally loud and rude) children in public with the words "Say sorry to the lady", which eventually became the title for my Edinburgh Fringe show. No one ever looked embarrassed or said: "Don't be ridiculous, I’m not a lady."

Now, says US political columnist Ann Friedman, lady" has become “the core vocabulary of feminism in the age of irony”. Ten years ago, to address a group of women as "ladies" would make everyone feel as if they were at a WeightWatchers meeting in a village hall.

Instead of the word "lady" belonging to men, like it did in the 70s (see The Commodores singing “You’re once, twice, three times a lady..."), now it belongs to women. We sing about ladies. We call each other ladies. We own it. It's a very different feel. In the US, electoral campaigns appeal semi-ironically to "lady smarts", the word "ladyblog" is used to refer to feminist websites such as Jezebel, and even “ladyparts” has surfaced as a popular expression. Having Michelle Obama as First Lady hasn’t done the term damage, either.

Suddenly, young women have found a word to replace the awkward 70s feminist "sister", which never quite caught on (unless you can get away with saying "sista", and I’m not sure even Beyonce can do that). "Lady" is fantastic, because it can be said in a generous, friendly and semi-ironic way - as Lena Dunham proved in her TV show, Girls ("I’m a lady. She’s a lady. You're a lady. We're the ladies"). Last month, American comedian Amy Schumer’s sketch 80s Ladies ("They work in an office and date Michael Douglas...") went viral online.

The renewed acceptance of the term "lady" has a lot to do with reclaiming retro ideas. It's part of the trend for young women to rebrand crafts and the domestic arts as post-feminist. The ladies of today (and I feel like it should be spelled "laydeez", to indicate that it's not the same thing) do not aspire to be like Lady Mary in Downton Abbey. Instead, they channel the spirit of Joan Holloway in Mad Men.

It's a reworking of what it means to be a responsible, stylish adult woman. I recently met New York novelist Kathleen Alcott, whose Brooklyn-based novel Infinite Home is out now. In her mid-twenties and part of a hip New York crowd, she dresses like a cross between a 30s librarian and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, all raffia clutch bag, sensible heels and mustard and beige tones. She is, basically, a lady.

Elsewhere in fashion, Giambattista Valli is championing something he calls “ladylike luxe”, L.K Bennett has a “ladylike” range, and several New York stores report a return to “lady” lingerie (code for big Fifties pants, as opposed to thongs and G-strings). Look at any fashion shoot and pale pink is the colour of this summer, mixed in with 80s kaftans that wouldn’t look out of place on the ultimate lady, Margo Leadbetter in The Good Life.

It’s interesting to note that the original derivation of “lady” comes from the Old English word for “bread” and originally meant “bread-maker”. If we take Beyonce’s lyrics as gospel (and, of course, we should), then the term has come full circle; to be a lady is no longer to be a bread-maker, it is to be a bread-winner.

In the Destiny’s Child song, Independent Women, she sings: “The house I live in?/ I bought it / The car I’m driving?/ I bought it/ ‘Cos I depend on me.” But she also sings: “Ladies, it ain’t easy being independent.” Hence the contradictory twin desire to find someone to put a ring on it.

Hey, no one said feminism was uncomplicated.

— The Daily Telegraph

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