Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing

Faculty Member Theodora Goss Writes About "The Lady Code" This Week on the Stonecoast Faculty Blog

“Portrait of a Lady” by Rogier van der Weyden

The Lady Code

By Theodora Goss 

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.

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