The Original Wardrobe Mistress! The Victorian Lady’s Maid Was The Ultimate Personal Stylist

If you’ve come across my recent blog entry about Downton Abbey, you might be familiar with my latest freesourced book – Victorian Household Hints. Reading about the role of the Victorian Lady’s Maid has captured my imagination, as her duties in service are most comparable to the career of a present-day personal stylist.

The job requirements of the Victorian Lady’s Maid incorporated a number of different factors. Her value was based on her many favourable qualities – most importantly, a Lady’s Maid had to be loyal to her mistress. The Lady’s Maid was her confidante, and keeper of all her deepest, most intimate secrets. After all, it was the Lady’s Maid who she spent the most time with. An admirable first-hand servant possessed good manners, and with any luck, “not too strong a regional accent”- (ouch!). Other than these personal qualities, the best Ladies’ Maids were the ones savvy with a needle and thread, innate good taste, flair for styling and an eye for detail.

The Victorian Lady’s Maid was in charge of her mistress’ wardrobe, keeping garments in top condition, free of pests, discolouration and stains. She also doubled up as makeup artist, fashion designer, hairdresser and seamstress… Now how’s that for a personal stylist!

Her duties were to make dressing up easy peasy. There was no slumming it in Juicy Couture back in 1850. In the morning, the Lady of the house would ring a hand-held bell to signify that she was ready for her bath by the fireplace. In the meantime, her maid would lay the clothes out on the bed, and then lace up the day-dress du jour.

The best Ladies’ Maids were encouraged to study fashion magazines and get to grips with all the new vogues from London and Paris, to make sure their Lady looked bang-on-trend at their many high-class functions. When they weren’t tending to their mistress, helping them prepare for the next dinner party or guest arrival, they were getting busy with their sewing machines. This could be hemming a garment to fit another family member as a cast-off, or altering a dress that had already been seen at a party into something new. Just like today’s Instagram influencers, the Victorian aristocratic lady was fussy about being seen in the same evening frock twice!

As well as having a knack for spotting the latest trends and picking out the finest, funkiest laces, fabrics, buttons and trimmings, the best Victorian Lady’s Maids doubled up as makeup artists. Before Sephora beauty counter, homemade concoctions were conjured up out of ingredients to hand. Some were more toxic than others! Besides some unpleasant chemicals, make-up and hair products were made out of plant-based oils and perfumes, natural dyes and colourings – including coal ash!

Overall, the life of a Victorian Lady’s Maid sounds like it could be worse. She often had her own bedroom on the upper floor of the manor, whereas most servants slept downstairs in their quarters, or returned home after their day’s work. They went on trips with their employers, (for work duties of course!) sometimes received hand-me-downs, and if their mistress were to pass away during their services, it was often agreed in their contracts that they should inherit their clothes. I don’t know about you, but as a fashion lover, I think I’d quite like the job. It beats ironing the morning papers any day!

Nicole Parnis

Nicole is a culture writer and lifestyle journalist with a passion for fashion, food, music and anything retro. She indulges by thrifting her Sundays away at flea markets, followed by a cappuccino or two in a pretty village square.

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