The Interesting Origins of the French Maid Outfit

Collen Camp wearing a French Maid outfit in the movie "Clue" with Tim Curry and Christopher Lloyd

The French Maid outfit has surprisingly been worn in movies by some of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars, including Jennifer Aniston (“Friends With Money”), Jennifer Love Hewitt (“Heartbreakers”), Collen Camp (“Clue”), Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives”), and Joanne Whalley (“The Man Who Knew Too Little”). The styles vary, but they wear the essential parts of the French Maid attire while continuing to make the case that a French maid is someone to look forward having to keep your home in order.

However, we may be giving the French too much credit for the French Maid get up, only because that is not really the way French maids dressed, whether it is back in the 19th century or today. The discouraging truth is that French maids dressed in a far more practical and modest manner. The standard maid attire in France for maids was:

  • a knee length dress, usually blue or grey
  • the traditional white apron
  • shoes similar to modern day nurse’s shoes or athletic shoes

Not very sexy. Now French maids often found themselves as sexual objects for the man of the house, so there is something to the stereotype. But what they were wearing had little to do with it.

So how did we get to this view of what a French Maid wears? All of the actresses mentioned earlier would find themselves wearing a variation of what is now considered typical French maid clothing and accessories:

  • a black dress with white trim
  • a half-apron, white, usually adorned with ruffles or lace
  • a ruffled or lace headpiece
  • long stockings or tights, black or white in color
  • high heels
  • a lace garter, usually white
  • a choker necklace or pearls

It is fair to ask how much actual housekeeping can be done when dressed like this. The common sense answer is – not much.

The history of the uniform is connected to a form of entertainment called burlesque. Burlesque is intended to be a comedy or parody of a subject, in this case the French Can-Can dancers of the late 19th century. Their performances were often the reason for night clubs in France being closed for violation of public nudity laws. The dancers exposed the area between the top of their stocking and the edge of their underwear, but only when they lifted their skirts in the famous Can-Can show style.

American burlesque picked up on the strict laws by using the French maid as a woman who was completely the opposite of the traditionally efficient but sometimes sexually compromised woman. The best way to create a show that would parody the night club violations was to design a costume that would barely avoid any possibility of a public nudity charge. Burlesque raised the hem of the knee-length dress to a barely legal limit, and had the maid wear high heels to make the performance of her duties ridiculously impossible. The pearls and lace would be visual garnishments for a woman whose real life duties would be equally ridiculous.

The shows and public acceptance of the burlesque performances became so widespread as to result in the French maid parody being a cliché in the entertainment world. People who are unfamiliar with the history of the costume (not uniform) will likely believe it is mocking the women doing the work of a maid rather than the public nudity laws that were actually the target.

One fashion truth that is missed in all of this is that up until the end of World War II it was the French who were dictating the styles and fashions in the English speaking world. The French Maid uniform became culturally popular in Great Britain and the United States as one way of rebelling against European fashion while continuing the burlesque parody that remained popular.

When the whole picture of the uniform is looked at, it ends up where everything connected to it got turned on its head. Run of the mill French maids were transformed into sex goddesses, the target of the burlesque was completely ignored, and what started as a costume for an entertainment show became a French cultural icon – outside of the country.

Now that all this about the history of the uniform is known, the question is what should we do with the stereotype? Obviously men like the costume, women don’t seem to have a huge problem with the stereotype, and it is still used in movies featuring some of Hollywood’s most identifiable actresses. Since nobody seems to be offended by it any more, its original intention of mocking public nudity laws has lost its teeth.

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