We've seen what a stylish British mantua-maker's apprentice might wear in the shop in the 1770s, what a female blacksmith or other laboring woman might wear at her work, and, what, too, a housewife might wear as she went about her day. Now Abby Cox, one of our knowledgable friends from Colonial Williamsburg, shows us what a woman in domestic service might wear. (Her clothes are modern replicas, not 18th c originals, but cut and sewn entirely by hand in true 18th c fashion.)
Uniforms for female servants were a 19th c. innovation. While Georgian-era male servants were often provided with livery, their female counterparts - whether at the top of the servant-ladder as ladies' maids or lowly maids-of-all-work - were expected to provide their own clothing from their meager wages. They were also expected to dress in a manner that was modest, fit for their station, tidy, and clean. Samuel Johnson noted that "women servants. though obliged to be at the expense of the purchasing their own clothes, have much lower wages than men servants, to whom a great proportion of that article is furnished, and when in fact our female house servants work much harder than the male."
Here Abby is wearing an untrimmed English-style gown of a woven striped cotton. The gown has inverted back pleats to shape the waist, and is worn over a plain dark linen petticoat (the under-skirt) and a white linen apron. She has looped her skirts up both to help keep them clean, and to mimic the elaborate skirts of more fashionable gowns - though the effect in the soft cotton fabric lacks the exuberance of poufs of crisp, costly silk.
She also wears white thread stockings, low-heeled buckled shoes, and a linen kerchief tucked around her shoulders. Beneath her gown, her figure is shaped by her stays (corset), which every respectable young woman would wear - see here for more about her stays. Her only indulgence is her cap, ruffled white cotton trimmed with a silk ribbon. While Abby's dress is suitable for a servant, it could be equally worn by a young woman working in a tavern or shop, or simply at home.
Like nearly all 18th c women's clothing, regardless of cost, Abby's gown is pinned closed in front (see detail, left). While men's clothing fastened with buttons and ties, women pinned their clothes together with straight pins; the points of the pins were safely buried in the multiple layers of gown and stays. Pinning was not only a neat finish, but also offered an endless, practical range of adjustments to a woman's changing body.
Photographs by Susan Holloway Scott. Many thanks to Abby Cox for being our maid servant!
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.