For centuries in many parts of Europe a very distinct idea of the true lady existed: she was never loud, never obtrusive, never swore, did not know the words to describe the bodily functions and if even a hint of the juicier sides of life was made in a conversation she would faint.
This changed in the course of centuries since the advent of the civil society, when first the equality of men was declared and later on the freedom of men, women and even slaves was proclaimed. Step by step the enlightenment and women’s lib movement acquired a foothold in thoughts, ideas and finally in law: even in the late 18th century, when the French revolution started a whole volley of changes, equal rights for all men and freedom for serfs, women were not even considered, much less covered by such laws.
As had been custom since ancient Greece and Rome, the law considered ‘man’ to be free and have the right to vote. ‘Man’ did not mean ‘human being’, but literally the male grown-up of the society. The eldest sons not even of age were often put to ‘look after’ the woman and younger children of the house, when the father (‘pater familias’) was away.
Women were considered to be weak, a lady was something like a hothouse plant, to be kept under wraps, to be protected and hatched and not to be spoken roughly to. On the other hand she also was considered to be less smart than a man, practically dumb, less able to conduct business or study the serious subjects, such as high literature, medicine or law.
During the nineteenth century it became even more pointed when a ‘writing woman’ was likened to a ‘monster’, in so many words, in articles of special ladies’ magazines, books for housekeeping and instructions on how to properly behave as a lady.
Into the 1950s, the seminars and classes for young women were well known in Germany, to instruct the bride-to-be in how to take care of the man, cook, clean the house and dress, the so-called ‘Bräuteschule’. Down to the crossing of legs, the conversation considered suitable and the poise of the head, the shoulders, how to hold cup and saucer, knife and fork. The most cruel expression of this idea can be found in the German version of the fairy story of ‘Cinderella’: two of the daughters are encouraged to cut off their heel or toe to fit her feet into the shoes for the dance – to ultimately ‘catch’ the prince.
All this made for another kind of corset: the strict rules thus creating a restricted range of body movements caused numerous problems for health and well-being. Among them reduced blood circulation especially in neck and shoulders, legs and lower back.
Today we are lucky that in some parts of the world this has been realized and also leads to a potentially more relaxed expression of emotions and thoughts.
I still think an evening dress worn to a ball and the grace of a dancing woman is fine to look at, and feel – but personally I enjoy it so much more, when dress and shoes ‘fit me’ – not vice versa.