The job of a lady’s maid was, according to one author, “far from laborious, and [was], in most instances, little more than an agreeable exercise of useful qualities.” Besides serving as a confident and secret keeper, a lady’s maid was also responsible to attend to all of the personal needs of her lady and acted in ways similar to a gentleman’s valet. To achieve this, a lady’s maid needed to have an arsenal of various skills, and many of a lady maid’s talents were connected with her mistress’s toilette and wardrobe. Duties included selecting clothing and millinery that highlighted and improved her mistress’s complexion and figure. It also meant a lady’s maid was responsible to protect, maintain, and repair her mistress’s skin so that she would be less likely to suffer from age spots, freckles, pimples, moles, warts, wrinkles, or other skin imperfections. Headdresses and hairstyles were another vital component of a mistress’s toilette, and no woman wanted to look ridiculous just to be in vogue. A lady’s maid also had to balance the latest fashions, makeup, and millinery styles with her mistress’s physical advantages and disadvantages. Moreover, the lady’s maid had to ensure that when her mistress stepped into the street, the mistress reflected her best work.
One way a lady’s maid achieve this balance was by determining whether or not a particular color fit her mistress’s complexion. “As every colour does not fit every complexion … [and some] injure rather than improve the beauty of the complexion,” a lady’s maid had to be savvy about what worked and what didn’t work with a person’s complexion. With respect to colors, the advise was they were not to “be dusty nor muddy, nor of a strong glaring kind.” Supposedly, the more appealing colors were those of “the milder … sort — light greens, soft blues, weak whites, pink reds, and violets.” When new colors appeared it was noted that “a new disappointment attends its first appearance; its elegance is gradually acknowledged, and the colour previously the favourite, sinks into neglect and contempt.” Determining the best color for a mistress’s complexion was not necessarily straightforward, although there were a few rules a lady’s maid could follow. One rule was that the predominant color in a dress should “always … contrast or harmonize … with the [woman’s] complexion.”
In order that a mistress’s complexion might be translucent and beautiful, the lady’s maid was tasked with ensuring her mistress used the best skin care products, known at the time as cosmetics. Cosmetics were used to maintain or improve a woman’s skin. They were also supposed to give a woman a lustrous, youthful glow. To achieve this, a lady’s maid equipped herself with numerous recipes that would allow her to create such skin care products as astringents, balms, lotions, milks, oils, ointments, pastes, or creams. These products were used to deal with such issues as age spots, freckles, pimples, moles, sunburns, or wrinkles. Additionally, a lady’s maid was responsible to repair or disguise her mistress’s flaws and imperfections, although sometimes the cosmetics she used to achieve these repairs or disguises were more injurious than helpful. Makeup at the time was often minimal and what was available was deeply pigmented, so applying it had to be done with a light hand. Rouge was made from flowers because it was long lasting, pearl powders gave “the most beautiful appearance, but … [were] too dear for common use,” and some lip coloring was usually a rose colored salve or balm.
Headdresses were another important consideration of a lady’s maid. Some headdresses were “indisputably charming” while others were “ridiculous.” It was during Louis XVI’s reign, that headdresses became ridiculous and towered so high women where unable to travel without kneeling in the bottom of their carriages or sticking their heads out the window. Fortunately, although headdresses were still large in the 1800s, they were no longer towering, and a lady’s maid was advised to seek headdresses that would compliment their mistresses rather than meet fashion dictates. This meant mistresses should not wear overly large headdresses or one of excessive height or breadth. It also meant that a small headed woman should wear something different from a large-headed woman. Additionally, because hats could provide a favorable shade over a woman’s eyes or conceal a woman’s charms, the lady’s maid had to select the right hat that improved and complimented her mistress rather than highlighted her imperfections.
A woman’s hair also needed to look as good as her skin, headdress, or wardrobe. To create fabulous looking hairstyles, pomatums and hair oils were sometimes used, and depending on a woman’s hair type they were dressed differently. Many hair products were also scented and sometimes these products contained a variety of fragrances. For example, violets, jasmine, orange flowers, and ambrette, were mixed with vanilla, tuberose, and rose and orange flower-water, as well as drops of essence of amber, musk, vanilla, and neroli. Tresses were worn up or down depending on the event or time of day. Sometimes hair was curled, ratted, or poofed, or it might have ringlets or be braided. Decorating the hair was also popular and the most popular of decorations were “gems, gold, and pearls.” Just as a hairstyle was important, so was the color of the hair, and, certain colors were “esteemed” and others considered “disagreeable.” However, if you were one of the unfortunate women with a disagreeable color, you could always have your lady’s maid dye it for you.
Although lady’s maids were responsible for many of the physical aspects of her mistress, she was first and foremost required to keep her mistress’s secrets. This was because a lady’s maid usually had a close relationship with her mistress and was involved with the family at an intimate level. This meant there were usually things the lady’s maid needed to keep private. In fact, gossiping servants were said to belong to the bottom rung of society, and nothing destroyed a servant’s reputation more thoroughly or swiftly than gossip. It was for this reason that a lady’s maid was advised, “Never look into letters if they are left in your way, nor hang about the doors to listen to the conversation when visitors come; nor give encouragement to the servants of your employer’s visitors to be communicative … If you do not attend to these precautions, and be prudent and circumspect you will have every chance to get yourself into trouble.” Moreover, one author noted that a lady’s maid should never repeat anything seen nor heard “either to the domestics, or to … friends … [it] ought to be kept as secret as if you had taken an oath not to reveal it. [Further,] many things … will be forgiven you in other matters; but no lady will ever forgive a betraying of confidence in family affairs, and you have no right to expect it.”
- Adams, Samuel, etal., The Complete Servant, 1825
- The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825
- The Servant’s Guide and Family Manual, 1831