Portrait of a Lady – a Brief History of the term “Lady”

Today, the term “lady” is often used as a civil term of respect for a woman, as is “gentleman” for a man.

But there was a time when its purpose was to address women of high social class or status.

During the Middle Ages, princesses or daughters of the blood royal were usually known by their first names with “The Lady” prefixed, e.g. The Lady Elizabeth.

The Renaissance lady is described by Italian courtier, author, and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione (1478 – 1529) in his handbook for the nobility, The Book of the Courtier. He writes that she was the equivalent of the courtier, with the same virtues of mind and equivalent education.

Castiglione writes that although culture was an accomplishment for the noblewoman and man alike—used to charm others as much as to develop the self—for the lady, charm had become the primary occupation and aim.

knowledge of letters, of music, of painting, and . . . how to dance and how to be festive.
La Mode Illustrée, 1865
La Mode Illustrée, 1865
Whereas the courtier’s chief task is defined as the profession of arms, a Lady’s pleasing affability is becoming above all else, whereby she will be able to entertain graciously every kind of man.

By Victorian times, ladies etiquette had become a fine art. Several handbooks provided advice on the complexities and nuances, none other than Florence Hartley’s The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness advises that a lady should have knowledge of the forms and customs of society and how to show the gentle courtesies of life.

Emphasizing just how important dress was to the Victorian lady, is this Florence Hartley quote:

‘A lady is never so well dressed as when you cannot remember what she wears.’ No truer remark than the above was ever made. Such an effect can only be produced where every part of the dress harmonizes entirely with the other parts, where each color or shade suits the wearer’s style completely, and where there is perfect neatness in each detail. One glaring color, or conspicuous article, would entirely mar the beauty of such a dress.
La Mode Illustrée, 1863
La Mode Illustrée, 1863

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary describes the formal use of “lady” as a title of nobility:

any of various titled women in Great Britain —used as the customary title of (1) a marchioness, countess, viscountess, or baroness or (2) the wife of a knight, baronet, member of the peerage, or one having the courtesy title of lord and used as a courtesy title for the daughter of a duke, marquess, or earl.

Here are twelve portraits of titled ladies from the Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian eras.

Which is your favorite portrait of a Lady?

David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.