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Society / Profiles

Defending Ladies Who Lunch — Socialites Are Often Mocked, But Their Impact is Real

There is Much More to This Scene

BY // 03.27.19

I remember hearing the phrase “ladies who lunch” at a very young age — and almost every day since. But it wasn’t until I began penning this column that I pondered the meaning of those words and their origin.

Most research pointed to Women’s Wear Daily for the first appearance of “ladies who lunch.” Some say it was publisher John Fairchild who coined the term. He would later go on to write a spirited little column in W magazine under the pseudonym Countess Louise J. Esterhazy, so this seems probable.

Others cite a 1970 issue of New York magazine as home to the phrase’s first appearance. Then, of course, there’s the song “The Ladies Who Lunch,” which debuted in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company. How could one forget Elaine Stritch famously singing: Here’s to the ladies who lunch. Everybody laugh. Lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch on their own behalf. Off to the gym, then to a fitting, claiming they’re fat and looking grim ’cause they’ve been sitting choosing a hat.

My first introduction to the expression came at a refined clothing store named Rheinauers, located in my southern hometown of Tallahassee. On the second floor was a popular lunch spot called The Bird Cage — ablaze in yellow.

To get there was quite a bit of fun: Women became pretty little sparrows, riding in an ornate rattan birdcage elevator situated smack-dab in the middle of the store for all to see. I remember trips to Rheinauers as a boy, accompanying my mom as she shopped. (Bill Blass for day suits; Victor Costa for evening looks.)

I fantasized that the women who frequented The Bird Cage were the types who drank coffee for breakfast, ate pot roast for dinner, and thus needed some sort of light sustenance in the afternoon (tiny sandwiches sans crust; anything with pimento cheese; an early-era garden salad with dressing definitely never on the side) to fuel their retail therapy.

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Thus, they were, obviously, The Ladies Who Lunch.

My late-’70s reminiscence of the ladies who lunch at Reinhauers is not much different than the luncheon scene of 2019. Generally, we find ourselves in a well-appointed room, beautifully lit or filled with natural light and dotted with tasteful flowers. Food is always light, lest one stray from a perfect size four, which our ladies have maintained since their college years.

The menu might include en vogue salads with dressing now firmly on the side, quiches, and some variation of a vegan, cream-less soup. Music is hushed in the background — so as to prevent anyone from missing the details of a country club romance gone wrong.

Cliques of these ladies who lunch exist in all corners of the U.S., and we have numerous sleeper cells in Dallas. Our city’s set is perhaps stronger than ever, I might add, with millennial protégés filling in the gaps left by octogenarians. They used to congregate at gone-by institutions such as the T-Room, Calluaud’s, and The Magic Pan at NorthPark Center. Today, the Dallas flock can be seen at Cafe Pacific, Le Bilboquet, Mirador, or Neiman Marcus Downtown’s storied Zodiac Room. Scandalous stories are sometimes shared, delivered sotto voce with an air of surprise. But inevitably lunch conversations lead to topics that truly shape Dallas.

Unlike the scene in 1970s Wasplandia, the modern ladies-who-lunch club is no longer a lily-white membership. Much like most of Dallas, the dining-room scene is diverse. Names on the reservation list are not restricted to preppy country-clubber Madisons and Muffys. You may even spy a dandy Malcolm or two in the mix.

Alas, however modern the lunch scene becomes, an old-school dress code remains. (Those chicks at The Bird Cage would approve.)

Isn’t the idea of dressing for lunch best imagined in the spring? Hydrangeas are blooming, and we’ve shed our bulky coats and cashmere knits for sleeveless shifts and sensible slingbacks. If Episcopalians were to have runways shows, these would be their looks: youthful, slightly studied, and planned.

Planned, you might ask? Outside of the lunch-world ecosystem, our girl is all about calculated casual. Even while running her most mundane errands, she strives to look like she just rolled out of bed, for she — in her Vince Jeans, James Perse tee, Gucci sneakers, and Goyard tote — couldn’t give a hoot about how she presented herself to the world when in carpool lane. (We all know she cares.)

But for lunch, rules apply. Planning is required. No T-shirts. No heels taller than three inches. No shabby jeans (but perhaps some crisp white ones from Brunello Cucinelli). And most definitely, never, ever anything that dare fall into the category of athleisure. Instead, to be accepted, one must dress in an attitude that presents a serious nature, whether it be an Emilia Wickstead or Lela Rose day dress or an Anne Fontaine blouse, Prada cigarette pants, and Charlotte Olympia flats, with a Mark Cross bag.

The lunch bell rings, and all arrive in unison to the valet — a pack of Range Rovers, Porsches, and Teslas queue up outside Grange Hall. Air kisses are exchanged, and the ladies check in with the darling boy behind the host desk (they’re on a first-name basis). A deal is made, and our ladies are ensured that their group is given ideal placement in the room — a table where everyone is able to properly examine other lunch patrons.

What do they do after they lunch? Gone are the days of hurrying home to dress for tennis lessons or to the carpool line to fetch the kiddos. No, our ladies who lunch are signing their check and calculating tip within a prompt hour, so as to return to high-powered jobs at law firms, hospitals, tech companies, and assorted Fortune 500s.

Power Lunch Ladies

We could spend hours writing about how ladies who lunch have completely usurped the notion of the power lunch from their gentlemen counterparts — but more on that another time. In short: The girls own it.

These women might seem silly to some — those rare-air few who lead lives of leisure, seemingly without a care in the world. But that is the exception, not the rule. And so, a quick note on the dreaded wannabes who give a bad rap to the ladies-who-lunch moniker…

These are the overdressed types, parodied on Saturday Night Live, who steer clear of thoughtful, deep topics for fear of showing ignorance, or the fact that they haven’t read a current newspaper in at least a half-dozen years. Those are not the true ladies who lunch.

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Feeling pretty.

The conversations from the ladies I appreciate range from art to politics to current literature. Strategic plans are sometimes laid to raise money to fund cancer research or dance companies in under-served communities.

We all play roles in this great and grand film of life, and depending on your tastes, it might be Shakespearean or Woody Allen-ish in content. The actors who would play the roles of the “ladies who lunch” film I would write would be the most accomplished and understated: Meryl, Reese, Helen, Salma, Halle.

If I have to share those last names, then you likely won’t appreciate the movie anyway.

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