Fashion Slaves

(see http://www.mythweaver.co.uk/stitchery/snippets/stitch-stitch-stitch-in-poverty-hunger-and-dirt/  for details of the conference at which this talk was presented)

The title inspired by Redgrave’s paintings, this talk is about the dresses once they have been made and delivered – the story is not finished then, there was upkeep and maintenance to be done – and what it was like to be a ladies maid.

Notes from a talk by Christina Walkley

Both the lady and the dressmaker were slaves of fashion – as was the lady’s maid who had to care for the clothes.

Even most extravagant lady expected her money’s worth.  Most dresses were refreshed, re-trimmed and often restyled.  These tasks were given to the lady’s maid.

Masters and Mistresses were dependent on servants.  Daily services included:

Draining bath, setting out underclothes, putting on stockings, doing hair, buttoning gloves, putting items in bags, etc.  (Almost like dressing a child.)

Ladies maids also dusted china, washed fine linens, cared for dogs, and did millinery and dressmaking.  They needed to be good organisers, skilled needlewomen, tactful, and sympathetic.

Ladies had a duty to be smart lest they earn the contempt of their maids.

Most ladies maids would ultimately receive their mistresses clothes as perks.

Maids had better surroundings and more variety in their tasks than dressmakers.  There were no fixed standards for wages.

A good ladies maid could be asked to do all sorts of tasks if she were the only person to be trusted.

Mistress and maid could develop a good relationship, even if the work for the maid was long and hard.  Some maids gave lifelong service, but the work demanded skill, concentration and service.  They did not do coarse work, but did clean shoes, care for lace and stockings.

Stockings and shoes needed special care.

A Lady was judged by the state of her gloves.  If rich, gloves would be thrown away when dirty, but their cleaning was laborious and involved several processes.

Cleaning hats and bonnets was also difficult to handle.  They had to be taken apart and then cleaned.  (A good opportunity to restyle.)

Care of lace was a special task.  A bottle was covered in white linen and the lace was tacked to it.  This was soaked overnight, then boiled.  The lace was dried on the bottle without rinsing.

Stain removal was another skill of the maid.

Christina Walkley was Assistant Keeper at Platt Hall from 1971 until 1972, and then Keeper until 1977.  Ms Walkely has worked since then as a freelance lecturer and writer.  She has written ‘Crinolines and Crimping Irons’ and ‘The Ghost in the Looking Glass.’  Due to be published in March (the year of the conference) was ‘The Way to Wear ‘em: 150 years of Punch Fashion.’

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