To Lady’s Maid or Not to Lady’s Maid

Chocolate maid

A Lady's maid delivering hot chocolate in the morning

Joanna here.  The other day I was thinking about a discussion on Twitter that talked about the life of a lady’s maid. This related somewhat tangentially to my own life since I am trying and failing to fix my clothes washer and have thus taken refuge in philosophy.

It is better than kicking the washer and swearing, I suppose.

The Twitter thread was touched off by a video of a woman getting dressed in the 1890s.

There were many frothy bits of clothing, all of which had to be tugged up or around or pulled over and then tied or buttoned.

Folks pointed out, rightly, that it would have taken a bit of time and a lot of wriggling and gymnastics to get the woman dressed. Look at all those layers, they said. Bet she had a maid to help.

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Meet Bronwyn Parry

Anne here, and today I'm interviewing Bronwyn Parry. Clothier'sDaughter
Bronwyn is best known for her romantic suspense novels, published in Australia by Hachette. She's received a swag of awards; she won RWAmerica's Golden Heart, and in 2008 that became her first published novel As Darkness Falls. She's a two time RITA finalist, for Dark Country and Dead Heat, which were also listed in the Daphne du Maurier award for romantic suspense. And three of her novels (Dark Country, Dead Heat, and Storm Clouds) have won an Australian Romance Readers’ award for best Australian romantic suspense novel.

She lives with her husband in rural NSW, and regularly posts photos of costumes, kangaroos and dogs on her FaceBook page.  
BronQuillWRitingNow, Bron has moved into the Regency-era with The Clothier's Daughter, a move that's not a huge surprise to those of us who know about her passion for history and for historical costume — not just how it looks, but how it was made and how it was worn. She volunteers in a small local museum and has conducted several workshops on historical textiles at national RWA conferences in Australia. Bron has also taught herself to pen letters using a quill and will dress up in costume to do so. 

Anne: Welcome to the Word Wenches, Bronwyn. Tell us a little about your passion for costume and what you do at your local museum.

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The shawl of beauty and grace

Madame-recamier-by-francois-gerard 1802

An old familiar friend of a painting, but do we ever look at the shawl?

Joanna here, talking about that fashion accessory of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, the shawl.

Why shawls? We wear form-fitted, sleeved outer garments mostly — coats and sweaters and parkas and anoraks and Macintoshes — in the Twenty-first Century and feel pleased and practical doing so. Why did folks spend centuries throwing loose garments around themselves that didn’t button up and had to be draped and fidgeted with in a manner that may strike us as awkward?

I think an ideal of feminine beauty was at the root of it. The drape and swirl of a shawl, the varied possibilities with all their minute adjustments were alluring to the watcher. Displaying the shawl was an art, and this length of silk or wool might well be the most expensive object a woman wore.

So let’s talk paisley, since we’re talking shawls.

Paisley is based on a repeated, teardrop-shaped design pattern called a bota or boteh – a word that means  “shrub” or “cluster of leaves” in Persian.

Wenches star shaped tile from iran 1262

A decorative Persian tile from 1262. The boteh design comes from such roots

 This boteh is an ancient pattern, widespread in rugs, paintings, and tiles. It's an abstract shape that probably comes from the simplification of many sorts of feathers, fruit, flowers and so on in older designs. That is, there's no one origin. It's derived from many complexities that lost detail as they were copied and recopied.

In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries the East India Company imported these Indian designs to Europe where they became immensely popular. Soldiers returning from service in the East brought back lovely, expensive scarves of silk and soft Kashmir (cashmere) wool to their sweethearts and family. The British version of the scarves might cost more than 20 pounds. Sir Walter Scott’s French bride Charlotte Carpentier was given a Kashmir shawl in 1797 for her trousseau that cost 50 guineas, a huge sum in those days.


A fine shawl wrapping up mother and child 1825

Period portraits are full of these Kashmiri scarves gracefully swirled round the shoulders of women in flimsy low cut, high-waisted dresses. The survival of generations of scantily clad British beauties doubtless depended on these lengths of wool.

Wench british hand loom wool asilk 1810

British wool and silk paisley shawl showing boteh 1810

Almost as soon as the imported scarves arrived, they were copied enthusiastically by European weavers, among them the craftsmen of the Scottish city of Paisley, so much so that the Persian design ended up named "paisley" after that city in Renfrewshire, Scotland, far, far from the exotic mountains and plains of the East.

The handlooms and, after 1820, Jacquard looms, of the misty north produced quite a good imitation of the original Indian product. But it was  not a perfect likeness.

Throughout the import period, imported Kashmiri shawls were more expensive and preferred over the British version. The colors were more varied. Even at the height of Scots weaving they were using a mere 15 colors as opposed to the more than 40 colors used in the Eastern imports. The quality of foreign weaving superior, and the fabric itself was lighter. British shawls were made from sheep’s wool. Kashmiri scarves, from softer, more supple, more lustrous goat’s hair. And Kashmiri weavers used the “twill tapestry technique”.

Those of you in the know about weaving technique will recognize that this means the horizontal (weft) threads of the pattern do not run all the way across the fabric but are woven back and forth around the vertical (warp) threads to where the color is needed again. This is the way Europeans weave tapestries. And no, I knew nothing about weaving technique before I looked this up.

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Petticoats and Plantagenets

Petticoat american 1955 met

All-American petticoat 1955

Doubtless you’ve occasionally stopped in your daily round and wondered, “Why do we call a kind of frilly slip a petticoat? Doesn’t that mean ‘Little Coat’ or something like that? You know, French petite meaning small and coat meaning . . . well . . . coat.”

Gambeson 2

A he-man's petty coat

When I think petticoat I think of the Fifties and something frilly and stiff, maybe worn under a poodle skirt.


Poodle skirts. Those were the days.

But petticoats were not always so.

I blame the Plantagenets. Also the Tudors. 

Originally the ‘little coat’ was indeed a little coat. Worn by men. In fact, worn by men in battle under their armor.

The petty coat or gambeson was a short padded jacket worn to keep all that warlike fitted metal from chafing those manly muscles. This is not the sort of thing I ponder upon every day, but it occurs to me the simple act of wearing metal was probably fairly uncomfortable all by itself, without any battles going on, not to mention chilly in winter.

Thus the original petty coat. It also likely helped stop edged weaponry that had gotten past the metal layer. Your men-at-arms and peasantry on the march wore a slightly longer, multilayered and quilted version of this as their only protection.

Lucas de Heere c. 1570 with red petticoat

Bright red petticoat underneath her dress. 1570. Also a bird in  hand.
400px-Don_Carlos_Spanien wearing a doublet

You cannot actually see the petty coat here. It's under the doublet.

By the end of the Fifteenth Century the petty coat was also a men’s undergarment of the same general form as the military wear. In the  Boke of Curtasye, the chainberlain is told to get ready for his lord a clene shirt and breeches, a pettycote, a doublette, a long cote, and a stomacher. The petty coat was worn between the shirt and the doublet

Perhaps it was these civilian versions of the under-armor petty coat that created confusion. By the last half of the Sixteenth Century, a petty coat was also a garment worn by women. It might be a skirt or a skirt with an attached bodice and even sleeves. It could be worn as underclothes or be an outer garment. They were often a startlingly bright red. 

The petticoat had jumped the gender barrier and become woman’s clothing. It never looked back.

1740 to 60 petticoat silk cotton met

Here we see just the petticoat itself
image from

And here the petticoat and gown. This is a robe à la française

A hundred years or so later genteel woman’s dress evolved into a combination of gown and petticoat. The skirt of the gown was drawn back to show the petticoat below. The petticoat itself was a gathered skirt, often with a bodice. It had become a highly decorated garment, made of beautiful fabric.

Chemis third quarter 18 c Met

Regency shift or chemise. Well hidden underwear.

This makes sense of the lines in the song Mary Hamilton,

“Cast off, cast off my gown, she cried,
but let my petticoat be
and tie a napkin round my face,
the gallows I would not see.

Anyway, from all this you will see there is an old and venerable tradition of underwear/outer wear confusion and no real grounds for objection if folks choose to run about in camisoles, I suppose.

As we approach the Regency the rules change. A new style with slim lines, diaphanous  fabrics, and a high waist comes in. Exit the petticoat. For a few decades the undergarment of choice is the plain linen or cotton shift.


Petticoatearly1805 to 1815
A clothing expert points out that petticoats never really disappeared in the Regency era. The garments worn under a dress might be reduced to a single layer, but it was not always a simple shift or chemise. Sometimes the elaborate design tells us these were meant to be seen.



I am rather wedded to trousers, myself, and out of touch with dresses,
but it might be fun to swish about in petticoats.

Does anyone miss petticoats?

Choose your gown

RwaJo here, historical fashionista! Well, not really, but in another spot we were talking about which look we'd choose if we were going to a historical costume ball. Medieval, Tudor, Regency?

DonzellaornatapopHere's an image from Vecellio's book of Renaissance Costume, which contains images both interesting and alarming. Some, like this on the right, are imaginable. Some are odd. The one on the left, for example.

VCR071B I'm going to share some other images from different European periods. If you want to go Oriental or such, you're on your own.Which appeal to you, and why?

For example, if I was intending to dance and have fun at the ball I'd choose a more comfortable and manageable gown; perhaps even an early 20th century one. But for show I might go for more structured splendor.

It would be interesting to wear the stiff Tudor style — to see how it felt, and how it made me felt. Do you agree that clothes change us, especially how we move and how we feel about ourselves? Have you ever experienced that?

Which period costume do you think most flattering to women, and which the least?

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