French Maids - What's up with that?
October 19, 2005 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Questions about French maids...

What's the origin of this phrase and concept? I assume at one point they were simply young household servants from France, but at what point did the concept evolve into such an erotic icon? Did French maids actually wear this kind of thing? Is the costume related somehow to the legendary French decadence? I found several historical references to "French maids" noodling around Google, but none of them explain the history of this concept. Here's a reference to a French maid during the reign of Charles II [1630-85], for example.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's a guess, but it may come from the Commedia dell'Arte stock characters. Google keeps linking Columbina / Columbine / Arlecchina to the "French maid" concept (she seems to have been Pantalone's maid), and the costume (fluffy skirt, apron, low-cut dress) fits.
posted by occhiblu at 9:53 AM on October 19, 2005

According to Wikipedia, it got its start in burlesque theatre.
posted by brundlefly at 10:07 AM on October 19, 2005

I also recall from "Perdita- the life of Mary Robinson" by Paula Byrne, that socially France was considered the fashion leader in the Anglo world. ( as well as the most debauched regime in Europe at that time) This is late 18th Century, just before the French Revolution. Women, particularly of the Demi-monde went to Paris to outfit themselves (and acquire maids, skills, lovers etc., ). These outfits would set a trend back in Great Britain.
Along with the Burlesque associations, I'm guessing the French maid provided the normal services of any Demimondaine ladies' maid which seems to have included keeping the gentlemen busy while Madam was with another admirer.
Seems a short hop to the New World, who aped Old World fashions and the sexual implications.
posted by Wilder at 11:21 AM on October 19, 2005

While recognizing that this post might be tagged as noise, I want to note that our house cleaner in Paris (I would not call her a maid) does not resemble any of the googled images. Particularly the dingo.
posted by Dick Paris at 11:54 AM on October 19, 2005

I just want to point out that the "French maid" GIS link above gives you an very different set of results with "safe search" set to "off!"
posted by LarryC at 12:16 PM on October 19, 2005


socially France was considered the fashion leader in the Anglo world.

And this remained true right up until World War II, when wartime privations meant that American and British designers had to go it alone. That's how we began evolving a uniquely American look and clothing profile.
posted by Miko at 1:19 PM on October 19, 2005

The term might also be related to "French postcards" [NSFW, but pretty tame], which were an early form of erotica.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:09 PM on October 19, 2005

Sorry, more noise: This is just wrong, isn't it? (direct to image)
posted by Dick Paris at 2:38 PM on October 19, 2005

I was going to say it probably came from French Farce, which is a particular theatrical form which like most things referred to as "French" isn't necessarily French, but represents English thinking that the French are generally more lascivious. Just a guess though.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:54 PM on October 19, 2005

I don't know, there's babette in the movie Clue...
posted by punkbitch at 1:04 AM on October 20, 2005

or is it Nanette? Yvette? Whatever, the veluptuous know.
posted by punkbitch at 1:06 AM on October 20, 2005

Yvette (Although personally I prefer the singing telegram girl.)
posted by milovoo at 11:36 AM on October 21, 2005

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