The Dangerous Extravagance of Servant Girls

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The London Times reviews John Styles' Dress of the People: Everyday fashion in eighteenth-century England:

"The mill girl who wanted to dress like a duchess" has been identified by Neil McKendrick as one of the forces propelling the Industrial Revolution. Throughout the century, sartorial upward mobility got it in the neck, from Defoe at the beginning who said that female servants ought to wear livery to stop their extravagance (an argument still heard today but in relation to school uniform) to the London Magazine, which lamented in 1783 that "every servant girl has her cotton gowns, and her cotton stockings, while honest grograms, tammeys, linsey woolseys and many other articles of wool, which would be much more becoming their stations, lie to mildew in our mercer's shops, are seldom enquired for but by paupers and parish officers". Sociological inquiries, such as The State of the Poor by Sir Frederick Eden (1797), lamented that the poor in the South of England no longer spun their own clothes: "within these twenty years, a coat bought at a shop was considered as a mark of extravagance and pride". As Styles mischievously puts it, "the modern morality tale of social bonds weakening as choice and individualisation intensify reproduces many of the anxieties expressed by eighteenth-century commentators about the perceived rise of plebeian participation in fashion".

Reading Styles's book, one is continually struck by the resemblances, on a much smaller scale of course, to today's patterns and institutions of consumption, and also by the similarities in the way elite critics then and now purse their lips and sigh for a more homespun age.

Is it me or has anti-couture pro-homespun snobbery been on the decline? Most of the pursed lips I see are directed at the extravagance lavished upon young girls, not the adult women buying $700 it-bags, and much of the longing for a simpler, purer age plays out in the politics of organic food.

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  1. Is it me or has anti-couture pro-homespun snobbery been on the decline?

    Another example of the total rejection of second wave feminism.

  2. First, you let the dairy maids get above their station and next thing you know your elementary school is full of prostitots with their hair highlighted like filthy, filthy whores.

  3. -Denny!

    -What?

    -The doll…give it back.

  4. I’m pretty sure cleavage might be one of the strongest natural forces on the planet.

  5. That should be Extravagance. You missed it twice.

  6. I’m pretty sure cleavage might be one of the strongest natural forces on the planet.

    Despite how much I sometimes object to his theories, Freud understood this well.

  7. female servants ought to wear livery to stop their extravagance

    Let’s just compromise and have them wear French Maid outfits, OK?

  8. It’s not a black hole at the center of the galaxie.
    It’s (yes) cleavage, the true grand unified theory.

  9. Thanks nazi!

  10. Also, what is with the hatred that people have toward fashion these days? Being individualistic and trying to look your best is an American tradition and natural human instinct.

  11. Kerry Howley | April 4, 2008, 11:49am | #

    Thanks nazi!

    Also heard at Formula 1 office parties.

  12. Miniver Cheevy lives!

  13. You’re just a shill for Big Grogram!

  14. Is it me or has anti-couture pro-homespun snobbery been on the decline?

    Anti-couture has very little hold because clothing is utterly subjective. If Versace wants to sell their latest, “top” stuff for $25,000, they can. And the people who can afford it wear it as a symbol of their affluence. You’re buying the label.

    Plasma TVs don’t work that way. Competition actually comes into play. You are buying the product, not the fact that it says “Panasonic”.

  15. I forgot to say that because fashion can remain too expensive for the plebs, it doesn’t come in for elitist scorn, because it remains a province of the elite.

    You will only see these backlashes against things which have become affordable to the peasants, such as air travel, exotic food, etc.

  16. Abdul wins the thread.

  17. Did mill girls know how to weld? Perhaps I have landed in am living in the wrong time.

  18. Also, what is with the hatred that people have toward fashion these days? Being individualistic and trying to look your best is an American tradition and natural human instinct.

    The “fashion” being referred to here is popular fashion, the homogenized crap marketed to teens at Hot Topic.

    Sorry to point this out, but the “plebs” have taken control of fashion, in every Goodwill and Salvation Army store across the country.

  19. Nothing says ‘pinnacle of civilization’ like JUICY on a four year old’s ass.

  20. Warren,

    That’s sig worthy.

    People not in the know,

    Tough luck.

  21. not the adult women buying $700 it-bags,

    That is ostentatious, but there is only so much pursed lip snit energy one can work up these days. I save mine for the many sportswear clad man-toddlers one sees around.

  22. Taktix?,

    Sweeeeet

  23. Also, what is with the hatred that people have toward fashion these days?

    Beats me, but I agree that hatred of fashion is nearly universal. I see way too many people wandering around in public in flip-flops, baggy shorts, and t-shirts like a bunch of mental patients.

    Being individualistic and trying to look your best is an American tradition and natural human instinct.

    That tradition seems to be stone dead in most precincts of this country.

  24. Most of the pursed lips I see are directed at the extravagance lavished upon young girls, not the adult women buying $700 it-bags, and much of the longing for a simpler, purer age plays out in the politics of organic food.

    I don’t know where you shop, but that’s pretty inexpensive for an “it” bag.

  25. 38 Ceiling Cat iz liek “i 4 i, fnag 4 fang”

    39 but im liek if bad kittehz spank u, turn otehr cheek

    40 if bad kittehz take ur fir, give ur tail 2 41 if dogs chase u 1 mile, run 2

  26. oops wrong window

  27. Holy shit, Warren is a fucking furry!

  28. oops wrong window

    No problem, bring it on

  29. This is why I insist that all my servant girls wear these home-made uniforms.

  30. who said that female servants ought to wear livery to stop their extravagance (an argument still heard today but in relation to school uniform)

    Giggity!

  31. Also, what is with the hatred that people have toward fashion these days? Being individualistic and trying to look your best is an American tradition and natural human instinct.

    Perhaps it’s because “Being individualistic and trying to look your best” is pretty much the opposite of fashion these days. All the stuff coming out this year is from the 1950s.

  32. I see way too many people wandering around in public in flip-flops, baggy shorts, and t-shirts like a bunch of mental patients.

    Would they look less like mental patients if they were well-dressed? Or would they just look like well-dressed mental patients?

  33. Would they look less like mental patients if they were well-dressed? Or would they just look like well-dressed mental patients?

    It depends on whether they were walking out of a church or not…

  34. Have you ever seen a well-dressed mental patient? Congressional press conferences don’t count.

  35. “Plasma TVs don’t work that way. Competition actually comes into play. You are buying the product, not the fact that it says “Panasonic””

    You bought a Panasonic? Man! Get a job!

  36. “This is why I insist that all my servant girls wear these home-made uniforms.”

    Thanks for helping my bowels move.

  37. Kerry Howley | April 4, 2008, 11:49am | #

    Thanks nazi!

    That will come up when you run for president.

  38. LarryA: Earlier than that, the Brooks Brothers catalogue has knickers in it! Which are pretty cool, in my opinion. Glenn Reynolds can shove i

    Conservatives, in general, are the worst about this sort of thing. The only acceptable clothing appears to be suits, standard business casual, or Wrangler jeans and NASCAR tshirts. Prior to the Depression or WWII, Americans wore a pretty diverse range of clothing and colors; its pretty evident from many books from that time period. Hell, Uncle Sam himself is one of the more extravagantly dressed characters out there. I find it funny that people so strung up on “traditional American values” hate on individualism through choice of clothes, color, or lifestyle.

    Or maybe its the Puritan heritage peeking through again. “Traditional American” and “Traditional Christian” are often at odds with one another.

  39. This is how I know I’m spending too much time on the internet — I knew before clicking to it what I was going to see in Stevo Darkly’s link.

    “Thanks, nazi!” is sig worthy, too.

    Oh, and Kerry Howley will feel differently about all of this someday when she has Jennifer’s children.

    Thank you, and the chef says try the veal.

  40. Whoops, last sentence of the first paragraph:

    Glenn Reynolds can shove it with all his whining about clothes that look different from jeans and a tshirt.

  41. I loved the complaint about “no longer spun their own clothes.” It sounds like they were expected to not just make their own clothes, but make the cloth as well.

    Historical note: in the US, homemade clothing was the norm until the Civil War. The huge demand for uniforms, though, got lots of men used to store-bought, and gave manufacturers important information about sizes that made it more practical.

  42. “Historical note: in the US, homemade clothing was the norm until the Civil War. The huge demand for uniforms, though, got lots of men used to store-bought, and gave manufacturers important information about sizes that made it more practical.”

    It’s sad to think how many great things war provides while everyone else focuses on the carnage. People are far to shallow.

  43. Cyndi

    For some, the carnage is a feature, not a problem.

  44. Aresen,

    If our foes would just leave us alone, or surrender when we fight back, then there would be no carnage, except in training.

  45. BTW, very cool Revlon ad on this servant fashion thread!

  46. Being individualistic and trying to look your best is an American tradition and natural human instinct.

    From the article: “Once the girls’ friends see them, they’re in the next week getting streaks of their own.”

    I don’t think “individualism” has much to do with fashion at all. In fact, true individualism is a rather rare trait among humans. Most people DON’T want to stick out.

  47. Rhywun,

    But what about the Goths and emos who all wear black in an effort to be different?

  48. You know what sucks about this? Little girl hair is one of the most beautiful things on earth. Why would anyone want to streak it up?

  49. But what about the Goths and emos who all wear black in an effort to be different?

    They wear black on the outside because black is how they feel on the inside.

  50. “An earring, how rebellious! In a conformist sort of way.”

    But seriously – have a gander at the history of sumptuary laws, and all this modern lip-pursing is put into perspective… it’s nothing new, and it never achieves jack.

  51. See also: Asimov’s Foundation series, in which the more technologically sophisticated planet colonizes the less sophisticated societies around it by introducing nuclear powered light up dresses to their fashion markets.

  52. Have you ever seen a well-dressed mental patient?

    Actually, yes. Depending on their symptoms they can be quite fanatical about how they look.

    I remember one gentleman in a locked VA ward. Really nice guy. Always quite natty, much better dressed than most staff. He was friendly, too, and always interested in me and what I was doing. (We were adding fire sprinklers to the facility.)

    Just don’t ask him about the German tanks going by outside.

    There but for the grace of God…

    You know what sucks about this? Little girl hair is one of the most beautiful things on earth. Why would anyone want to streak it up?

    1. To look like their peers.
    2. To piss off their parents.

    When I was a kid no one but a hoodlum would wear a flattop haircut, usually with a T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeves and tight jeans. Parents condemned those barber shops that would so butcher a young man’s hair.

    By the time I got to that stage the Beatles had hit, and it was “Your hair is over your ears! Get it cut!” Cue tie-dye and bell bottoms.

    The more things change…

  53. the extravagant servant girl is a latent lure.everyone have to dress decently as the identity.

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