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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The Well-dressed Maid.

Joanna here:  Most of us have a picture of what a historical housemaid should look like.  
E. Phillips FOX - Déjeuner, 1911 

She'll wear black with a crisp white apron pinned to her bodice and a little cap on her head.  A Downton Abbey maid; an Upstairs Downstairs maid; a Victorian or Edwardian maid.  And for Victorian era maids, this is an accurate picture.
The maid would buy her own clothing, with the type and style stipulated by the mistress. 

A housemaid's dress is of some importance. When engaged in her morning work, washable materials are the best; a wide holland apron should always be worn over [an apron] of white material whenever house-cleaning is going on. If the servant be required to appear at the front door, or wait upon the family whilst at dirty work, by casting aside the outer apron she is able to appear at a moment's notice in a presentable manner. For afternoon wear in the winter, very dark or black French twill dresses are suitable, inexpensive, and easily washed. In the summer light cotton materials look best. At all seasons a neat white crochet cap is the best head-gear.
      Cassells Household Guide, c.1880s

George-kilburne 1Where heavy work was required, the maid would try to get that done in the morning and change to better and cleaner clothing after the worst of it.  This is not just for neatness sake.  The maid is representing the household.

If the parlour-maid answers the door, she should be neatly attired, and ready at a moment's notice to present herself creditably before strangers. A servant of good address at a professional man's door, is as much a matter of personal recommendation of the employer as the situation of his residence. Some amount of forethought on the part of the mistress is necessary to ensure cleanly appearance in a door-servant; but the attempt is worth making, if only for the sake of favourable first impressions on the part of strangers.
      Cassells Household Guide

One purpose of the Victorian maid's clothing is to establish her position in the social hierarchy.  The servant's clothing is this era is a sort of uniform that show she is a servant.   How embarrassing for all concerned if she were unmistaken for a lady of the house or a guest.

Thus the lady's maid, even when she has the perquisite of cast-off dresses, would not wear them going about her duties.  If she wears them on her day off, she'd best nip out of the house smart and not be seen.  "As a general rule, ladies do not like to see their maids dressed in the clothes they themselves have worn – except in wearing a black or a dark-coloured silk – the difference in the social scale of mistress and maid renders this unpleasing." Cassells Household Guide

Taking just a moment to talk about the nanny's clothing. 
Maidservant carrying breakfast tray albert goodwin 1893This is more likely to be light colored and easily washable, with black saved for 'best' when she brought the children out to meet guests and the family after dinner.

The dress of a nurse needs some words of comment. Long skirts should not be worn, tripping little children up, as they are liable to do. Gowns made of washable materials are most suitable. These are easily cleansed if soiled by nursery duties, and cost but little to renew. A waterproof apron worn under the ordinary white apron will be found a great comfort to a nurse, and might be supplied with advantage at the cost of the employer. Every nurse should also be furnished with a long, loose, warm wrapper, made like a dressing-gown, for night wear, when her duties require her to rise from her bed to take a baby to and from the mother's room. This garment should be purchased by the mistress, and kept for the use of any nurse who may succeed to the situation.
     Cassells Household Guide

Leslie,_George_Dunlop_-_Her_first_place before 1921But what about the Regency?
Moving a couple generations back in time and looking at the clothing of a Georgian or Regency maidservant, we discover an entirely different situation.  In 1760 or 1800, a maidservant wore essentially the same clothing as others of her class.  She wasn't required to buy special clothing to suit her job. 

Perhaps the maid dressed better than her cousins back home because she might have access to her mistress' castoffs.  Contemporary journals and letters complain of maids wearing clothing unsuitable to their station and their work.  But whether the maid wore her lady's silks to sashay about the parlor, dusting, or saved it for her day off, or thriftily sold it to the used clothing dealer, it must have presented a continual temptation to finery. 

There was no distinctive 'uniform' required for the Regency maid.  No necessity for drab and black.  No regimentation.  When the maidservant opened the door to the Regency hero she was as likely to be wearing flowered muslin as black serge.

The housemaid by william henry pyne 1827

Gilroy the stays

 
The chocolate girl jean ettienne liotard
Joseph Caraud - The Levee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What about you?  Have you ever had to wear a uniform?  Was it good, reasonable, proper to wear one … or just a pain in the neck?

Did it make you feel differently?
Do you treat people differently because they're wearing a uniform?

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