Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What the Maidservant Wore, c 1770

Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Isabella/Susan reporting:

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!


KSF said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Hi, Thanks so much for the all the information provided in your latest blog. We have our imaginations but it is helpful sometimes to see the actual product. I'm also curious to know what types of pins they used in that era. I believe the safety pin as it is today was not invented and patented until 1849...here's a link from wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Patent_6281.jpg
Thanks Anne

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Anne, they used straight pins. Here's a link for more info, plus pictures of the pins:


Glad you found the post helpful!

Erika Sundeen said...

How did she loop her skirts? Are they sewn that way or did she use pins?

Abby said...

There is cotton tape inside my skirt that I have tied together. :)

Anonymous said...

Shameless plug Susan, Abby is wearing Burnley and Trowbridge fabric :-)

Susan said...

I've read before, but never commented mea culpa. But I do enjoy your posts. I agree with one of the comments above, it is really nice to actually see what we have had described in words. Even the best description is not as good and a few good pictures. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Just another one of the instances of gender discrimination! I have read that in big households it was more prestigious to hire male workers, than female ones. Why? Because they cost more. Convoluted logic!

On a different note, wasn't cotton a fabric of luxury for a very long time?

Naima Haviland said...

Thanks for this informative post and the beautiful pics! I'm writing an 18th century novel with a servant girl as the protagonist and this helps a lot!

Anonymous said...

I guess even in the 18th century, a housemaid was required by her employer to dress a certain way.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much really interesting and as earlier people have said, a photo is worth quite a few words. Can you tell me whether 16th C dress for serving women would have been very different?

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