Beyond the Black and White: Dress and Identity in France and Britain, 1900-1939

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Dr Fanny Louvier, University of Oxford

  • fanny.louvier@balliol.ox.ac.uk

In the first half of the twentieth century, domestic service was one of the main occupations for women in both France and Britain. We often imagine these women wearing black dresses, white aprons and white caps on their heads. This popular image is not too far from the reality in Britain. All those who were employed in domestic service wore a uniform regardless of the social standing of the households which employed them. Some servants wore special uniforms like cooks or lady’s maids. Most women, nevertheless, worked as maids-of-all-work for the middle and lower-middle classes and wore a print dress with a cap and a rough apron in the morning to do heavy-cleaning duties followed by a black dress and a more delicate white cap and apron in the afternoon to welcome guests and perform lighter tasks.

Edwardian Maid

When I started gathering and analysing British servants’ autobiographies to study their everyday life, I discovered that uniforms were more than just work clothes, they carried deeper meanings for the women who wore them. Servants reminisced at length about how their uniform made them feel and, in particular, the way it reduced them to a fixed identity and social class, thereby suppressing their individuality and self-esteem.

When Winifred Foley, a maid-of-all-work in the 1930s, first put on her uniform at her employers’ home, this was an emotional transformation: ‘I kept trying to staunch the tears with the flannel and water in the washstand bowl. A black frock seemed to suit the occasion. I was in mourning for my lost self.’ She reflected on how servants were ‘barely allowed their identities under the uniform caps and aprons.

British servants also suffered from the way that the uniform distinguished them from other women. As one chambermaid highlighted: ‘the greatest trouble with service is having to wear a cap and apron. Shop girls and business girls look down upon servants for that reason.’ The uniform was a central element of servants’ life stories and identities in Britain.

Given that they were discussed so widely in British servants’ autobiographies, I was surprised to find barely any mention of uniforms in recollections of French servants. Most descriptions of their clothing were limited to work aprons which protected their dresses from dirt. For example, Juliette who worked for a small middle-class household in Lyon, was told by her mother that her old dress, a patched skirt and a smock ‘would do’ for her work dress. When she arrived at her employers’ house, they requested only that she wore an apron over it. In an interview about her time in service, Paulette Belaire, a French maid in the 1920s, was asked whether she wore a uniform and struggled to answer: ‘I don’t know, I dressed like I wanted. Did I wear an apron? Of course, I did, like any fourteen-year-old girl.’ Another image of the domestic servant seemed to emerge from French servants’ accounts, one in which, contrary to popular representation, servants were visually or, more precisely, sartorially, integrated in the crowd on female workers.

Domestic servants and their mistress

At first sight, the presence or absence of a uniform may seem trivial. Clothes, however, not only offer protection from the elements, but also fundamentally define who we are and how we are perceived by others. They can indicate the wearer’s occupational and regional identity, class, gender, age and religion. They can empower and confer respectability, but they can also be used to punish, shame, ridicule and exclude.

For a long time, this reflection on dress had been confined to the clothing of the elite because of the role of the upper classes as trend setters with a more vibrant, extravagant, and varied fashion and because upper-class clothing has been more carefully preserved. Nevertheless, more recently, historians such as Vivienne Richmond and John Styles have shown that clothes were not just practical items for the poor which protected them from the cold and dirt, they were also highly symbolic. Clothing had an impact on the way they saw themselves and were seen by others: inadequate dress could make them targets of pity or ridicule, affect their courting or inhibit their ability to gain employment. By understanding how people dress, therefore, we can learn much about how they fitted within the wider society.

My article in Cultural and Social History draws on a large sample of servants’ autobiographies to show what servants themselves had to say about their clothing. It uncovers the reasons behind the different dress codes of British and French women in service and explores what this can tell us about servants’ identities. For example, it examines the link between servants’ dress and the nature of the occupation in each country. Wearing a delicate muslin apron might be an appropriate outfit to open the door to guests coming for tea, but it makes more sense to wear a rough sack apron if one is to cycle to the nearby market to sell the employers’ wares or feed the hens in the courtyard. The article also reflects on how the presence or absence of a uniform shaped servants’ experiences outside of the employers’ home. It examines the way that British servants’ uniforms contributed to their distinctive status and stigma among other female workers, whereas French servants did not tend to articulate a specific ‘servant identity’ in a society where many women still worked within the family economy. Thinking about dress, therefore, can help us to interrogate what it meant to be a servant and deconstruct the category of ‘servanthood’ in the first half of the twentieth century.

 

About the author: Fanny Louvier is a social historian of modern France and Britain, with an interest in women’s work and domesticity. She has recently completed a DPhil in Economic and Social History at the University of Oxford. Her thesis is entitled ‘A Comparative Study of the Dress, Food and Leisure of Domestic Servants in France and Britain, 1900-1939′

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