by Rhonda Roth, Collections Librarian, Seneca College
Mr. Carson, Mr. Barrow and Mrs. Patmore to name a few of our favourite characters/servants in the television show Downton Abbey (now, sadly in its last season) tell us a great deal about their position in society, without uttering a single word. One simply has to observe what they are wearing.
All servants of the time wore some kind of distinguishing “uniform” which served as a useful reminder of status boundaries between employer and servant. It was imperative to the class conscious late- nineteenth and early- twentieth century employer that a servant be immediately recognizable as just that, but, it was carried even further to distinguish servant from servant within the stratified hierarchy “below stairs” as well.
The premier show of Downton Abbey was set in 1912 with the tragic sinking of the Titanic dominating the events of the plot. This was the Edwardian era which stands out as a time of peace and plenty until the onset of World War 1 in 1914. But for many people, it was a time of shocking levels of poverty. A report written by Benjamin Rowntree on the slums of the town of York that came out in 1901 (Maloney 4) noted that 28% of the population was living in intolerable hardship. By this time, 1 in 4 people were domestic servants, mostly women who worked seven days a week from as early as 5am to 10pm for very little money. And yet, this was considered a reasonable alternative to the slums and gave some a certain amount of social status, especially if they worked in a home like Downton Abbey where they were housed and fed.
No matter the prestige of such a demanding job, a visible distinction in appearance was seen as crucial by their employers. Butlers, like Mr. Carson, were the highest ranking official servant in the house. They were responsible for running the house. It was customary in the early 19th century for employers to give butlers and other menservants, like Mr. Bates, their cast-off clothes but at the same time to make sure that the resulting outfit was never quite ‘correct’. The tie was not quite right with the coat or the coat was slightly out of fashion. A butler looked like a gentleman’s gentleman but not a gentleman in his own right. In the case of Mr. Carson, he wears a black suit so that he is slightly differentiated from other upper level male servants, and thus displays a visible signal of his superior status.
The footman, like the incorrigible Thomas Barrow, was the most visible and splendid of the servants in a large Edwardian home, an adornment whose chief job was waiting at table, polishing dishes and supervising the rooms and activities of the lady of the house. Footmen reflected the wealth and class of the family, and tall, good-looking young men were quickly promoted to this position in the best households. A six-foot footman could expect to be paid more than a shorter one. Appearance seemed to be everything and some ambitious footmen made use of special pads to make their calves appear shapelier.
A whole coterie of maids would work in a home the size of Downton Abbey such as a housekeeper, lady’s maids, parlour maids, a head house maid, a nursery maid, chamber maids, laundry maids and lower on the totem pole would be the scullery and between maids. Maids who were most visible wore cotton print dresses in the morning to do the dirty work of cleaning the house and then changed to a uniform of black dress, turned-down white collar and cuffs, and muslin cap with or without streamers and bib-apron in the afternoon when, most importantly, guests came to call. Physical appearance, once again, was of considerable importance. Those maids possessing tall, trim figures were in far greater demand than short, stout individuals due to their perceived more graceful movements when waiting at table. Taller maids were favoured and could garner a higher wage just due to this advantage. Short girls were destined to be firmly below stairs or employed in poorer households.
Cooks, like Mrs. Patmore, had an important role in providing good food to the family and visitors but were not as visible and so usually wore washing dresses and white aprons, with coarse ones for cleaning purposes. Cooks did not always wear caps, except in houses where they were expected to answer the front door.
Uniforms or work dresses were rarely supplied to female servants and if they were, were taken out of their meagre wages. Boots were also expected to be provided by the maids themselves and as one girl in Somerset reported in 1913, her shoes cost an entire first month’s wages. In contrast to the more visible lady’s maids and parlour maids was the lowly “tweeny” maid or scullery maid like Daisy, who was often as poorly dressed as unskilled labourers because there was no fear of anyone seeing her slaving away downstairs in the kitchen.
In highly- class conscious industrial societies, even accessories like hats were enormously important as signals that claimed or maintained social status. There are instances of maids instructed not to wear hats in church on Sundays but to wear identifying bonnets in case they should be mistaken for one of the family. Even personal choices like facial hair for menservants were discouraged while their employers wore the latest fashions in whiskers of the time. All of this points to the extreme social control and institutionalized separation of spheres that was imposed on working class employees. This is aptly captured in The Duties of Servants (1890), a bible for managing a household of servants, which warns lady’s maids to “never to dress out of your station as a servant: for your knowledge of stuffs, trimmings and fashions, gives you the means of doing this more successfully than any other servant.” (Lethbridge 41).
As Downton Abbey progresses into the interwar years and winds down in the 1920’s, we see the sun beginning to set on the lavish lifestyle of the Edwardian period with its wide range of appropriately dressed servants. Labour-saving devices, alternative sources of employment for women and increased wages began to shape the view that multiple servants for every task was an extravagance save for all but the biggest houses to have. Women were attracted to the new options for work that were less demeaning and didn’t require the wearing of the hated servant’s uniform of starched cap and apron. Although it would take until WWII to radically diminish the numbers of servants, dressed to reflect their place in the hierarchy was a thing of the glorified or horrified part of the past, depending on the level of the stairs you were looking at it from.
Lethbridge, Lucy. Servants. A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain. London:
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2013. Print.
Maloney, Alison. Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants. New York: St.
Martin’s Press, 2012. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.
Rhonda Roth is Editor of the Fashion Resource Centre Blog & Liaison Librarian at Seneca College. She is a devotee of the history of fashion and Downton Abbey.