Polished panache: Lady style

See by Chloe coat
I have noticed a return to a way of dressing, and I'll bet you have, too, especially if you have 30-something friends or children.

The lady look is back, sitting with crossed ankles amidst us.

(Shown, See by Chloe coat, Neiman Marcus, $545.)

Wonder Woman as lady
The newly-married Kate, Duchess of Cambridge personifies this consciously-groomed approach. So does Victoria Beckham (when wearing her own line), Michelle Obama and Lynda Carter.

Lady style favours dresses, skirted suits, structured bags, hats, nude stockings, classic cardis, perfect colourful lips, deliberate colour coordination.

Lady is unmistakably feminine; her innate propriety lends sexiness, but with the shades pulled. A lady need not flaunt her charms.

For years, lady style was something I watched from, say, across Bendel's tea room, admiring the composed possessors as if they were elegant canaries.

In the '80s and '90s, most lady dressers were my age or older. It was a look one earned, socially and financially. As if a skipping stone, "lady" flew over many 50-something women who were thrilled to get into Eileen Fisher and out of a girdle, to find new life in the current decade.

The Good Wife at work
Lady does not merely lunch; she goes to work: Joanna Margulies, playing lawyer Alicia Florrick in "The Good Wife" started the series as a navy lady, then added more colour as her character gained confidence and clout.

I've come to admire lady style, though have not worn the full-on version since the days when my mother bought my Peck & Peck suits. There is a control underpinning the style, and I feel like I'm in someone else's clothes, someone more well-behaved and composed.

And lady is typically svelte, able to inhabit a demanding cut like this Giambattista Valli gingham dress (from Barneys; price, $3,000), which she might pair with Prouenza Shouler lazer-cut orange pumps ($695 at Barneys), because sometimes the lady is a vamp.

Lady at the mall
Caroline Charles crombie
In the mid-range, Talbot's have staked a claim on lady, offering endless variations of slightly chaste ensembles, more polished in print than in the shops. They are mining the Kelly-Hepburn Lady Manual, but without really good fabrics, the clothes are not enchanting.

The best of lady can be coaxed into cool; Vivienne Westwood or Caroline Charles' impeccable pieces would take a sharp shootie and some funky jewelry. I'd love Charles' wool crepe Crombie jacket with its velvet collar (£695) to wear with jeans.

Once you meet her standards for fit and quality, lady style rewards you with clothes that last. I can't remember when I bought the few lady pieces (navy silk pants, Hermes shirts) in my wardrobe. But isn't that just like a lady?

She never tells her age.


An said…
Duchesse I think ' lady' , to a large extent, is a classic and polished look. It's also most likely to be versatile and professional at work. So hardly surprising that in these tough times, lady is 'in' .

I'm in my 30s and a fan of this look, though I'm hardly svelte at size 8/10:(. but it's still not that tough to pull off, methinks....
coffeeaddict said…
I quite deliberately steer clear of the lady look and even when wearing such structured pieces as a suit, sheath dress or a coat I introduce the element of surprise, something whimsical. And it's not just the age factor, I feel exactly as you described: "There is a control underpinning the style, and I feel like I'm in someone else's clothes, someone more well-behaved and composed."
As I walk the street of our capital I sometimes get a rare glimpse of a Lady, capital L. Always a woman of a certain age. Impeccably tailored clothing and a matching hat. And I admire the way she caries herself.
This new era of lady look may try to emulate it but will never come close.
Splurgie said…
"It was a look one earned, socially and financially."

Lady dressing - what a wonderful way to put it. I love the way you write.
Susan said…
I have to admit that I love the lady look and size 8-10 IS svelte as far as I am concerned.
Mardel said…
I love the "lady" look and I love many of its components. Something in me always rebels just a bit though, I have to do something to the look to feel myself.
Deja Pseu said…
For most of my adult life I aspired to this look, but in the last couple of years have come to realize that I can't pull it off. That feeling you describe of "wearing someone else's clothes" hits it on the nose. I do like mixing up a ladylike piece in a more casual ensemble. I'd love to find a "topper" jacket in a lady cut and color to wear over jeans.
HB said…
I love the lady look but am always a bit more mussed than would be demanded to really pull it off. I work with a woman who is unbelievably polished and somehow authentic all at the same time. We all admire her style.

Nicely written post - and inspiring as I contemplate what to wear for a big presentation today.
Pearl said…
Love the lady look: it has always been my favorite style, beginning with my adolescent admiration of the Dior New Look. I agree that things have changed since the 40s in terms of manners and attitude: the New Lady works outside the house, handles her own resources, uses courtesy and polite attitudes to interact with people. Sure, it's about control: as in adults acting as if they are socially civilized, rather than entitled or living on the "Jersey Shore"
Gretchen said…
I sheepishly admit that most of my wardrobe likely fits into "lady" category, with skirts, wrap and shirt dresses, tailored pants, shirts, and cashmere sweaters. When I deviate from this, I feel like I'm wearing a costume. The trick is, as other posters said, not taking it too seriously, and adding something fun, whether a shell necklace, sparkly ballet flats or leopard Belgians, or a zebrarint belt. What I love about being middle aged is we can wear what we want and what suits us, personality- and fit-wise, without the social restrictions tied to the "lady" era of the mid-century. And thank god for that...
Susan Tiner said…
I always think of Jackie Kennedy when as the epitome of the lady look.

I could never really pull it off and even if I could I wouldn't want to. Too constraining.
Anonymous said…
"Good fabrics" are very important.
Duchesse said…
An: "Svelte" does not mean a tiny size and I feel consternation, not at you but at a culture that would transmit that. One can be svelte at larger sizes too, as many 6-foot plus women will demonstrate.

coffeeaddict: The new era can achieve it, for example, Phoebe Philo's clothes for Celine: lady perfection. However, young adult women in full-on lady can look too mature for their years.

Splurgie: Thank you! Lady is a costly style in terms of acquisition and upkeep.

Susan: Damn straight!

Mardel: Like you, other commenters like to play with lady. But then it is not quite lady, so what is it? Woman?

Pseu: When my mother died, I hosted a tea for her FL friends, dressed in 100% lady. Her friends told me how much my mother would have loved what I wore. (But I never wore the complete outfit again.) It puts me in a very precise mood.

HB: It is indeed a look that looks very professional (in business) but is not necessarily boring or even unremittingly conventional (see those orange shoes). Some ladies have drama!
Duchesse said…
Pearl: There is lady style, and lady behaviour. They do not always coexsist in the same person. You might enjoy my post on the behavioural dimension, "Ladypersons";

Gretchen: Don't be sheepish, my lamb! Lady is a graceful and refined way to dress. Yes, happy to be free of certain social restrictions.

Susan Tiner: Yes; it's a style beloved of such women. I especially liked Mrs Kennedy most in her slim capris and a simple sweater, a casual lady.

Anonymous: Good fabrics, perfect fit, and impeccable grooming, the lady Holy Trinity.
Parthenope said…
I like the idea that we have 'earned' this look - not just financially, but because it looks best on grown-up women. If I don't wear it now, I shall feel I have missed out, and I feel very comfortable with it, though I agree that it needs a little twist. We don't want to look as though we are actually wearing our grandmothers' clothes.
Tiffany said…
I love that gingham dress, and the coat with the velvet trim. If only dressing like a lady could fit my life ...
Duchesse said…
Tiffany: Not sure about your life, but ladies are sometimes casual- Though their casual is quite pulled-together. Maybe even jeans, but I suppose ironed.
LPC said…
I wrote a long, heart-felt, brain-cell punishing post about the concept of Lady. I think I wore myself out:).
AN said…
AN: the svelte=size thing is part-culture, part-me since I live in a place where the average woman is a size 2-4, cellulite is rarely (if ever)seen & where I am probably one of the largest women in the workplace - so yes, I do have body-image issues but not as bad as a few yrs ago:).

Height is a lovely thing that, at 5"4, I can only be envious of!!
Duchesse said…
AN: I am in Canada, where the average size is 12, and according to some sources, 14. However, in my city (Toronto) with its large (and growing) Asian population, the average size is much smaller.
Lynda said…
I love the classic lady style. The clothes in your blog are lovely; however, I am not able to afford those beautiful clothes. Can you you suggest a brand that carries well made clothes, in good fabrics. I live in Florida and am a size 14P.
Every morning,when you write, yours is my go to blog. I love the way you write. ...down to earth but a great, positive philosphy. Do continue writing for you have a gift.
My dear mother was born in Winnipeg and was very proud of her Canadian heritage.
Duchesse said…
Lynda: I can't either, most days! Check Talbot's b/c they have petite and you can find, for example, classic pants or a pretty blazer. Go to Nordstrom and just think lady and see what there is, for example, in Tahari or Anne Klein Petite.

But really, lady clothes that frame the lady elegantly are high quality so shop the consignment/secondhand stores and get to know the staff. One of my most perfectly-dressed lady friends buys ONLY secondhand clothes. Don't know where you are in FL but in my parent's city there were always lots of lady things in consignment stores, in perfect condition.
materfamilias said…
Interesting -- looking through the comments I realize that I'm not the only one with deep ambivalence about this look -- a real approach-avoidance conflict.
One thing I'm not ambivalent about, though, is my agreement with Splurgie -- you write so well!
Duchesse said…
Parthenope: I guess it all depends on your age now. My grandmother was born in 1878, there is little likelihood I'd wear clothes that look like hers :)

materfamilias: Ambivalence is to me a good thing, causing us to question and determine what personae we communicate through our attire.

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