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Neat and Tidy: the Housemaid Uniform

That of the housemaid was the second largest category of employment in Victorian England. A position developed in the rigid and articulated structure of domestic work, it was defined by strict rules, customs and a proper costume.

In its commonly recognized version, composed of a dark dress, a white collar, apron and headband and dark shoes, the housemaid uniform finds its origin in the Victorian era. Before, it was not common for maids to wear a particular uniform and, while male servants used to wear a livery, girls often wore their mistresses’ old clothes. This sometimes led to embarrassing confusions between the maid and the mistress, a common theme in the 18th century drama.

'Le Nettoyage', a maid and a servant cleaning up a room; 1876/1920. Courtesy MoMu - Fashion Museum Antwerp, all rights reserved.

It was in the Victorian era in England, a period characterized by a strict class differentiation, that housemaids were first assigned a distinct uniform, that helped to recognize her position and role in the house. Since the maid represented the household, neatness and tidiness were the keywords of her costume. Precise rules were set that imposed the maid to change twice a day and, even though the dresses were often handmade or purchased by the maids themselves, they respected shared norms and trends, dictated by fashion and, of course, by the mistresses as well.

Apron, headband, cuffs and collar, part of a housemaid uniform, 1920/1930. Courtesy MoMu - Fashion Museum Antwerp, all rights reserved.

In the morning, when the maid was supposed to do the harder jobs, she would wear a plain gown in washable materials with a white bib apron and shoulder straps, while during the afternoon she should wear a black woollen dress with white linen collar and cuffs, and a withe apron. All through the day her hair would be protected by a white headband tied with black ribbon.

Even if housemaids were depicted in paintings and illustrations, it was only in the 1920s that garments manufacturers started to produce ‘fashionable’ housemaids’ dresses in a variety of fabrics; uniforms even started being featured in advertisement on ladies’ magazines. It is through these paper materials that the memory of the housemaid dress survived, as its practical nature mainly prevented the dresses to be preserved; the remaining examples, now kept in museums and archives, still are important witnesses of a wider dress – and social – history.

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