Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Ladylike and Feminine: what’s the difference?

Ladylike and Feminine: what’s the difference?

Something thrown up by feminist fashion 'trending' (as it were) on blogs is the language we use to describe fashion. Much of what we wear celebrates the female form and many bloggers wear traditionally 'dainty' clothes such as dresses etc'. Sometimes I come across really interesting articles about being  feminine feminist - less often, posts bemoaning the lack of 'ladylike' behaviour/dress nowadays. So why do I lap up the feminine musings with relish and click off the ladylike stuff within moments? Surely a contradiction? Not, I feel, if you are a geek like me...

Nowadays people interchange the terms feminine and ladylike as if they are synonymous with each other. I, however, have a very particular preference and it’s tied up within elements of class and the origins of this word. And I do find, at a subtle level, that when one or the other is used there are traces of these elements still evident.

Etiquette - invented to limit time for spying and not the same as manners.
Everything gilded but not a toilet in sight...

Ladylike means, at its core, ‘like a lady’ (specifically the spouse or sister of a Lord, ‘Gentleman’ or – more contemporarily - a leader, hence First Lady to denote the wife of a president or prime minister). There is an inherently unattainable aspiration within it, and a subtle reminder that because aristocracy is through birth or marriage, one can only ever attain the status of ladylike, not that of lady, through one's own behaviour. It is not the same as the colloqual metaphor 'she's a real lady' where a woman is imagined to have upper-class status through her behaviour: it limits the woman with the 'like'Feminine on the other hand, means ‘reflecting the qualities of a female’. The first, if we take both at their true meaning, is tied up with Class (big C) and status – the other far more flexible, as women have a vast array of qualities associated with our sex (some social constructs- some thrown at us by nature) – tenacity, empathy, communication, consistency, care etc’. Being ladylike implies at least some of the social trappings of the ‘lady’ and indeed a period of history- the age of glamour (rather, even, than chivalric ladies and their knights)- whereas being feminine is more eternal and multi-cultural in its approach.

Let’s look at some of the ways I find them subtly different (the definitions - in bold- for ladylike are an amalgamation of definitions from blogs, websites and glossy/vintage magazines):

A lady:
  • Always dresses demurely because her status/wealth would be tied into her marriage or maiden status (being the wife of a Lord, or sister), and thus is intrinsically tied up in keeping those ‘goods’ away from common eyes. The kind of attitude mocked by Henry Fielding- that someone who saves themselves for a ‘good’ marriage (rather than a love match) is moral, not cynically exchanging a female body for cash and status. Nowadays we still use ‘ladylike’ to mean demure. Why not say demure?
  • Avoids trousers and wears elegant shoes. This, in the mid-20th century and before, would be in part to make it crystal clear that she does not work in the local factory. The bit that gripes me here is the avoiding trousers – I read blogs where people prefer skirts, fine- a personal choice, but to suggest that women before 1960 didn’t wear them and hence it is ‘unladylike’ is inaccurate and insulting to millions of women who have always done hard, physical work to keep this country going. Additionally, this ‘ladies don’t do practical’ idea was pressed upon the aspiring middle classes by the fledgling media; meanwhile the aristocracy explored the newly discovered Med, experimented with planes and motorcars, and joined the fellas foxhunting.
  • Is immaculately groomed but avoids red nails or anything gaudy (no need to attract a love-match if Daddy has someone in mind already). Additionally, gaudy is relative. A royal may drip in gold and jewels, but on someone with the wrong background it's gaudy bling...

Even outside wartime, women worked
on farms and in factories.
Those I consider feminine:
·         Always dress in a way that suits them and in well fitted clothing. They follow their own style, be it trendy, classic, indie vintage… looking neat, clean and presentable. This clothing ethos is one you’ll find from the very humblest of prehistoric peoples to today: a value that crosses cultures, too.
·         Avoid wearing impractical clothing that might rip, tear or cause a malfunction when working practically. It looks a lot more sophisticated than a stubborn adherence to frocks-n-heels when you don't live the life of a lady. Let me give an example: a skirt and high heels on a windy pebble beach. I spend a lot of weekends in Brighton and have seen a lot of young women wobbling in a far from elegant manner. The desire to look ladylike can look comical when not living the lady’s life; it’s the basis of most class-based British comedy from Oscar Wilde to Birds Of A Feather. A pair of wide-legs, brogues and a pretty jumper with a brooch will look neat and feminine for strolling out of doors – a frock intended for a ‘lady’ might best be reserved for parties.
·         Knows when to scrub up and enjoys glamour. Part of the joy of really glamorous clothing is ‘dressing it up’. It can become a joy in itself to put a lovely outfit on and build the day around that! Confidence is a great look whether your nails are neutral or red, short or with inch-long tips. Having the confidence to 'break the sartorial rules' with a wink and a smile, adds a sense of dashing, high-status verve.

A lady:
  • Speaks softly and gently at all times. Because if her kids are running for the lake, nanny will get them, because you don’t need to raise your voice if you’re the boss, sweetie- and because she would be playing the role- in public- of the high-class wife. However, anyone who has read any PG Wodehouse will note that this, again, has more to do with the male, romantic ideology of ‘the lady’ than typical upper-class ladies.
  • Is not ambitious or forceful. Even pre-feminism (which can be a dirty word to lady-fans) this probably wasn't true - again, part of acting like a lady. She didn't need to struggle (bar securing the right marriage) and her leadership role was inherent to her status: she ran a house with upteen staff, no mean feat (and yet, hard to imagine it as possible without some vim). But there are still those out there who advocate passivity as something secretly desired by women - and the norm in the past. Adopt this passive ideal as a working woman, or a housewife with husband and umpteen kids and chaos would soon ensue.
  • Doesn’t swear or behave wildly. (Unless on Mustique?)

Of course, if you are a lady, you no longer
need to follow the rules!

Those I consider to be feminine:
  • Have developed the skill of projecting their voice and speaking loudly and authoritatively without screeching, booming or sounding rude. As men have always done, and been lauded for, they vary their tone and volume according to the situation.
  • Hold their own ambitions and act fairly, without trampling on others to reach them.
  • Has the confidence and tenacity to act decisively and then maintain trust.
  • Considers the sensitivities of those around them when choosing the language and behaviour they use. Is kind enough not to deliberately offend and empathetic enough to know how to do that.

I like Dolly. She's a real lady- not by being 'lady-like'
but by being her own eccentric self and succeeding
(and her literacy initiatives, charity work etc').
It’s a subtle difference, but to me the two words are not interchangeable. To me, ‘ladylike’ is the lifestyle ‘size 0’ – some achieve it through happy accident of birth, some work super-hard (and suffer) to get there, some airbrush their lives so the 'plebs' know no better. Just as beauty comes in many body shapes, femininity should be found in many women of all classes, cultures and historical ages.


  1. I do like reading all your posts but these ones in particular are of interest. There are so many contradictions in life and not necessarily and right answers for everyone and everything. But it is great to explore them.

  2. Excellent post, Perdita. I definately err more on the feminine rather than the ladylike side of things. Ladylike for me always seems a bit wet, the wan heroine in a Bollywood movie who gets the man despite having no personality or gumption. xxx
    PS the label, ratehr rudle, in missing from my new coat. If we get to meet up we will both have to wear our turquoise maxi dresses and matching faux furs and be rather un-ladylike in Wetherspoons.

  3. Mwahahahaha VV, you know me too well. ;)

  4. I like being referred to as a 'lady' because it makes me giggle. I'll always be a girl.

  5. I hate the term lady cos it now reminds me of little britain - not a fan! Language is certainly a funny thing and so open to interpretation! (mrs_sock)

  6. I'm too loud and wear too many noisy accessories to be lady-like!!
    I fit the feminine type!!!!

  7. great post,I am more feminine,thats why I call myself la dama,cause I am totaly the opposite.

  8. Very interesting, ld never really thought about what lady like means to be honest. Then again, lm not a fan of labels and definitions when it comes to people. xx

  9. What a beautiful post! Thank you for sharing!

  10. It's got me thinking about my own pseudonym to be honest: I'd rather be a 'princess' (with all the bratty associations- I use it jokingly as in 'Primark Princess', 'Park Royal/Essex/ Princess' etc') than 'princess-like'.

    Strange isn't it, how a little addition changes the word so much? Lady Gaga isn't Ladylike Gaga!

    Mind you this post has lost me a follower, very contraversial indeedy!

  11. What an thought provoking post, I have to say I have never considered if I was ladylike or not. I always felt I deserved the title Lady mind!

  12. Now I have 'Dude looks like a lady' in my head!

  13. I love this post, it is very thought provoking. I'd never describe myself as 'lady like' though I would 'feminine' probably. But like Lady Cherry, I'd like us to get rid of all labels completely and just be who we are

  14. Fabulous post. I have no idea which category I fall into though! xx

  15. What a Wonderful post! As a linguist, I can totally understand the desire to illustrate the differences between lady, ladylike, and feminine.

    As a society evolves, so does its language. At one time, a 'lady' may have defined an actual title and/or a social status (ripe with strict rules) but in a modern era where such titles and social restrictions are no longer germane, the definition has deviated somewhat. Instead of a 'lady as a title' or lady as a demure creature, the newer 'lady' has transformed into a noun that basically defines someone as classy, polite, feminine, and gracious.

    Nevertheless, I think I fall into the "feminine" category. All labels aside, I am just "Tara."

    Again, this is one of the best posts I have had the pleasure of reading. Thank you, Perdita!

  16. Very provocative post indeed. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was brought up to be 'individually me', if such there be. I am neither 'Ladylike', 'feminine nor 'lady'.....


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