Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Behind the Scenes at Staatsburgh:
Reproducing Maids' Uniforms


Interpreters at Staatsburgh often dress in period clothing while giving tours in order to best represent the period.  Guests often wonder where we get the clothing and what makes it authentic.  While there are several excellent retailers who sell reproduction clothing, the NYS Bureau of Historic Sites also has wonderful seamstresses who sew period clothing.  This blog, authored by Amanda Massie, Associate Curator at the NYS Bureau of Historic Sites, examines the research that went into maids' clothing sewn for Staatsburgh.  

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The uniforms created for the interpreters at Staatsburgh were designed and sewn by seamstresses from the Reproduction Period Dress Program, which is overseen by the Curatorial Unit of the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation’s Bureau of Historic Sites and Parks. The Reproduction Period Dress Program supplies staff and volunteers at our historic sites with appropriate period clothing for costumed interpretation.

Though Staatsburgh's interpreters may be doing costumed interpretation, they are not wearing costumes!  Costumes are used in plays or different types of productions and they are meant to be seen from afar.  Historical accuracy is not a priority.  Period clothing is made so that all details are accurate to the era including the look, the materials, and even the way it is made.  Seamstresses use period patterns and historic methods of construction to make clothing.  For examples, clothing would be sewn by hand if it was from a time before the sewing machine was invented and mass produced.   All decisions are made considering the accuracy of the clothing before the aesthetics.

The seamstresses created uniforms for parlor maids and chamber maids at Staatsburgh based on period manuals and photographic evidence of maids’ uniforms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mary Elizabeth Carter’s Millionaire Households explains that both chamber maids and parlor maids generally wear a “clean and pretty gingham frock” in the morning and a “black, with broad, white linen collar and cuffs” and “a beautifully laundered large white apron” in the afternoon. A parlor maid’s embroidered or lace-trimmed apron made of a finer fabric, would have set her apart from the more simply attired chamber maid.

Servants and the owner of the house, 1885

The first uniform created for Staatsburgh by the Reproduction Period Dress Program was for Maria Reynolds, historic interpreter and creator of this blog, who portrays a parlor maid in afternoon dress. The seamstresses started with a shirtwaist pattern from Past Patterns and a school mistress skirt from Folkwear. Though we strive to use patterns based on original garments whenever possible, these patterns gave the appropriate silhouette. We chose plain, black cotton for the dress. High-quality white cotton was used to create a cap and apron to accompany the gown. Since there was no commercial pattern available for the apron or cap, the seamstresses created one based on period photographs and period garments.

Since Maria is portraying a parlor maid in her afternoon uniform, appropriate lace trim was added to the cap and apron to set her apart from the chamber maid.

Edwardian Servant, circa 1900

In addition to the outer garments, period undergarments also help fill out the proper silhouette. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a woman would generally wear a chemise, a cotton or silk slip, and drawers as her first layer, followed by a corset. After the corset she would likely wear a corset cover and petticoat to give the skirt fullness. Finally, she would don an outer layer, which would consist of her skirt and shirtwaist with the shirtwaist tucked into the skirt. Over this she would add her collar, cuffs, apron, and cap to keep her looking neat and tidy. The apron, collar, and cuffs could have been laundered more often than the uniform. In a wealthy household, laundresses would have taken care of the maids’ uniforms, laundering and starching them to perfection.

1910s maids’ uniform created by the Reproduction Period Dress Program, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation
Creating this ensemble for Maria and the three subsequent maids’ uniforms was really a learning experience. We felt the overall look of Maria’s uniform was close to images of early 20th-century servants, but were not very pleased with the fabric we used. Using higher quality black fabric and starching the shirtwaist, skirt, and apron as would have been done in the period, would have had a better result. Unfortunately, Staatsburgh State Historic Site does not have a full-service laundry as the Millses did during their residence at Staatsburgh! To solve this problem, we looked for a sturdier fabric to create the look of the starched uniforms.

The next three uniforms we made were two day uniforms for parlor maids and a day uniform for a chambermaid. For these we used a cotton twill. Initial research suggests that the parlor maid might have worn a blue day uniform and the chamber maid a gray, but we might make a different choice now. If we were to do it over again, we would probably make the day dresses from a high-quality gingham (checked fabric) or understated print. We would continue to make the afternoon dresses from black cotton. We will purchase or make proper period undergarments for the interpreters at Staatsburgh; these will help them achieve the proper silhouette and help them carry themselves with the appropriate posture.

There are many challenges in making and wearing historic clothing for any time period. Fabrics have changed, making it hard to find suitable fabrics. It is not easy to find talented seamstresses who know how to construct the clothing and fit it to interpreters. Finally, educating interpreters about how to wear period clothing and having them wear it correctly can also be a hurdle, as the clothes and how they permit someone to move is so different from our contemporary clothing. Because site visitors respond with such enthusiasm to our guides who dress in period clothing and to the special theatrical tours that they present, it is easy to justify the research and construction of historic clothing. These maids’ uniforms are a tangible and relatable way to connect modern guests to the hard-working people that kept Staatsburgh functioning. We hope to continue to make quality, accurate period clothing for many of our sites and we’ll continue to learn as we go.

3 comments:

  1. The background information is so interesting. Always fascinated by this period of history.

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  2. Hello, I find this period in history so fasinating particulary the servant classes. Thank you for sharing. I was wondering in your research, did you come across any general rule for female servants wearing a full, often overtly frilled, pinafore apron. It seems to me in most depictions of servants they tend to wear this larger style of apron. A half apron seemes to be reserved for "Ladies" maids only. Regards, Pauline.

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