Imagine a Regency lady with a beautiful evening gown, like this one in grey silk with pink trimmings and grey gauze oversleeves. But — oh, dear — she’s ripped it, or perhaps something has been spilled on it. Who will repair the damage or clean off the stain? The lady herself? Continue reading
Detail does matter. The Regency lady going to dinner, or going to a ball, wanted every detail of her appearance to be perfect. Especially if her aim was to attract a potential husband. (She might, of course, have been a married lady looking for a little diversion with a new lover.)
Did the gentlemen in question notice these details? Possibly they did, because most of the details on these gorgeous gowns were around two areas of the female body that drew the masculine eye — the low-cut neckline exposing much of the lady’s bosom, and the naughty ankle, glimpsed as the lady walked or danced. Continue reading
Regency gowns are familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Jane Austen adaptation on TV or film. We expect to see ladies floating around in high-waisted dresses, probably made of fine white muslin. We expect to see large quantities of bosom on display. But from our modern perspective of mass-produced clothing and home sewing machines, we rarely think about how these supposedly simple Regency garments were made.
By female hand and eye. Every last cut and stitch.
Most female servants had a pretty tough life over the centuries. They worked long hours at backbreaking menial tasks, they weren’t paid very much and they had little or no time off.
What’s more, they were often at the mercy of predatory men — employers or other servants. And if they fell pregnant as a result? It was their own fault, their own wickedness — of course! — and they would often end up in the gutter. Continue reading
Male servants conveyed the right image
In the Georgian and Regency periods, higher social standing was demonstrated by having more and more male servants, like footmen. If they wore livery, so much the better. If they had little to do, employers did not care Ostentation was all.
In 1777, Lord North (often called “the Prime Minister who lost America”) proposed to tax male servants at a guinea a man to help pay for the American wars. He reckoned that some 100,000 menservants were kept for purposes of “luxury and ostentation”. (The tax was increased in 1785 and not completely repealed until 1889. You can read more about it in an extensive article on The Regency Redingote.)
The cost of keeping bewigged footmen increased again in 1795 when the tax on powdered hair began to be enforced, at a guinea a head. Opponents of the then Prime Minister, William Pitt, stopped using powder themselves. They began to apply the term “guinea-pigs” to those gentlemen who still powdered their hair, and so paid the guinea in tax. Continue reading
Downton Abbey — and Upstairs, Downstairs before that — can be a bit of a curse for writers. Why? Because both show us servants, below stairs, who are human and empathetic. Because they show us relationships between upstairs and downstairs that seem respectful on both sides, even cosy. And because they aren’t always true to history.
Don’t believe me? Then let’s turn to Mrs Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) for advice:
A servant is not to be seated … in his master’s or mistress’s presence; nor to offer any opinion, unless asked for it; nor even to say “good night,” or “good morning,” except in reply to that salutation. Continue reading