Smart Uniforms for Domestic Service: 1919

An engaging figure is the little parlor maid in her trim frock, demure collar and dainty cap and apron.


for Domestic Service

The well trained maid who commands good wages expects to wear a uniform; there is no question about a cap, or a certain kind of collar or gown. She will wear what her new mistress requires in the way of service clothes and, of course, she expects her new mistress to pay for the same. A house maid or a waitress used to be expected to come to a new place equipped with at least one decent black frock “for afternoons,” and a certain number of fresh white aprons as well as gingham kitchen or “working aprons.” Now, however, all aprons are “found” by the employer, even the checked gingham kitchen aprons: and a new house maid may not even possess the one decent black gown. Unless it is provided for her, she is likely to wait on the dinner table in a V necked Georgette blouse and hobble skirt, or a garnet cashmere frock trimmed with red bugles. Fortunately these service clothes do not cost a great deal of money if one’s ideas are simple and not too individual. A plain, correctly cut black afternoon dress of sateen may be had for about three dollars; one of cotton mohair will cost five dollars or over. Such a dress, for the maid of all work’s afternoon hours, will have a straight, slightly gathered skirt and a buttoned-in-front bodice with long sleeves. The bodice may have a neck band for the attachment of linen collars, or it may be cut out slightly at the throat for wear with a turned down lawn collar. Smart looking parlor maids and waitresses in fashionable houses wear turned down collars opening in a cool, shallow V very often, and the style is more becoming and artistic than the stiff collar coming high at the throat–and vastly more comfortable for the maid! Sleeves, however, are always long and rather close-fitting. Never, on any account. will the waitress or parlor maid be permitted bare forearms–except during those morning hours of strenuous housework when a print frock is worn. Even then, the sleeves will be long, with a buttoned cuff so that the turned-back sleeves may be rolled down instantly and neatly buttoned if there is a call to the front door.

Aprons come singly or in sets, with cuffs and collar to match. The smaller the apron, the more coquettish the uniform; and all aprons for housemaids, parlor maids and waitresses are now rather small. The huge white apron covering the skirt is quite extinct for household domestics, except for the nurse who wears it occasionally in the nursery. A conventional type of apron for the maid-of-all-work in the afternoon, or for the parlor maid and waitress, is pictured. Strips of embroidery that form shoulder straps give a dainty trimming touch and a bit of the embroidery crosses the little bib of the apron. Collar and cuffs are of hemstitched linen or of cotton lawn made crisp and stiff with boiled starch. The linen accessories are much the best however; they are more easily and quickly laundered without starch and they have a glistening, spic-span look when adjusted. They also wear much better, under the frequent launderings necessary, than cheaper cotton lawn sets. The maid in the picture wears a very neat frock of black alpaca, and surely no maid could object to such a becoming cap of frilled net with black bows! It is never wise to insist upon a cap until you have “sounded” the new maid’s sentiments on this point. Good maids are hard to get these days and the cap question may arouse an antagonism that will make the first week hard for employer and domestic. Usually it is best to approach the cap question diplomatically. Provide the prettiest little cap you can find and let Abagail try it on in her own sanctum and note the becoming effect before any words are spoken.

Footwear is a more important question than that of caps anyway. One has seen many a maid prinked out in ribbon-trimmed cap and coquettish apron–with run-over, bulging shoes or shabby slippers. The maid should not be allowed to “wear out her old street boots around the house;” a constant practice with Abagails of the inefficient type. Service shoes should be insisted upon by the mistress–neat, low-heeled, quiet-soled boots or slippers of soft leather, and in perfect condition. Black slippers with white stockings are worn now with black frocks and white aprons by maids in many exclusive homes. Where expense is no object the maids are dressed in fetching uniforms of special type, the gowns of some unusual shade, like pearl gray, wine color, coffee brown or gray-blue. Aprons, cuffs and collar are of fine handkerchief linen, daintily scalloped, and the aprons are diminutive affairs with crisp ties. For special occasions there are aprons and collar sets of starched white net, scalloped or hemstitched. The maid in the picture has a skirt exactly the right length: short enough to be out of the way and permit quick stepping about, yet not short enough to suggest coquetry.

The Burlington [VT] Free Press 5 July 1919: p. 13

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The question of the servant’s cap–regarded as the badge of servitude–was a fraught one, as we see from this British court case:


A Question Now Exercising Social Circles In .England.

From the Now York Sun.

In the dearth of stirring public topics which has followed the adjournment of Parliament, London newspapers are earnestly discussing the question whether maid servants ought to wear caps. As might, have been expected, the Tory and Liberal Unionist organs maintain the affirmative with energy, white, with one exception, the representatives of Radical opinion seem inclined to favor the revolt against what they term a badge of servitude. The controversy is not without interest to some American households in which cap wearing is Imposed upon female servants with Anglomaniac rigor.

The incident which gave rise to the agitation of this question was the following: One Mary Chappell was engaged by a Mr. Kennedy in the capacity of house or parlor maid at a stipend of $4 a week. At the end of nine days the damsel, in her own words, “emphatically refused” to wear a cap and was summarily dismissed. She sued Mr. Kennedy in a County Court for her wages and he pleaded that she had broken her contract by disobeying lawful orders. The Judge overruled the plea and held that, in the absence of any express stipulation with regard to wearing a cap, the order was not lawful and judgment must accordingly be given for the plaintiff with costs. Commenting on this decision the London Standard, giving voice to the convictions and feelings of aristocratic employers, denounces the housemaid litigant as a snob.

It is urged by some Tory organs that the defendant. In this notable case of Chappell vs. Kennedy should appeal from the judgment of the Magistrate and carry the matter, if necessary, through successive tribunals to the House of Lords.

Already, it seems, a groom, emulous of Mary Chappell’s notoriety, has firmly declined to shave off his moustache. [Grooms were traditionally clean-shaven.] The Standard in its pessimistic forecast looks forward to the time when even top boots, or a swallow-tailed coat, may be regarded as the livery of shame. Reasoning solemnly and even tearfully upon the subject, it assures servants that no sensible man objects to adopting the distinctive garb of his occupation. It points out that officers wear their uniform while they are about their work; so do barristers and professors and tutors In universities and the great public schools. To these alleged analogies, however, the maid servants turn a deaf ear.

The Times [Philadelphia PA] 21 August 1891: p. 5

It was also axiomatic that servant girls would borrow their mistresses’ clothes. And who could blame them? No matter how smart the uniform or coquettish the cap, to attract the attention of the local policeman or greengrocer, one needed a more sophisticated wardrobe than that provided by one’s mistress or by her paltry wages.

Employment Agent: “Those are fine recommendations that gurl has, mum. Shall I send for her to come and talk with you?”

Mrs. Bronston. “Is she tall or short?’

“Rather tall, mum; but—”

“Is she fat or thin?”

“Rather stout, mum, a good strong—”

“Is she stouter than I am?”

“Oh, yes, mum, a good deal.”

“She won’t do. She’d split the seams of every dress I have.

The Times [Philadelphia PA] 9 August 1891: p. 9

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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