The Regency Wardrobe collection - research - Regency and Victorian servants

As a researcher at The Regency Town House, Hove Jill Vigus has done a lot of looking for more detail about those people who worked and lived as servants, as part of the households of Brunswick square, Brighton & Hove, and beyond during the Regency. Such detail is hard to find however.

As inspiration for The Regency Wardrobe collection she has helped me to track down guests lists of balls and social gatherings and historical records concerning the great and the good.

A certain amount of information is available about tradespeople through work related records. The location of a servants work however was someone else's home and so documented differently, if at all.

The national census in England didn't begin until 1841 and so we lack that layer of overview for the Regency period; whereas from then onwards, every ten years, we have a snapshot record of the inhabitants of every household, who they were and what their role was.

Servants didn't attend notable functions or, therefore, wear the latest fashions. I have found myself guiltily drawn toward the finery of the rich as I've researched Regency fashion, wondering what those with less money would have worn but of course finding few examples in museum stores or even in illustrations and books. Some presumptions can be made, simpler, cheaper examples of the less glamourous styles of the time, more hard wearing fabrics, plainer colours etc.

In the end however The Regency Wardrobe collection doesn't include any servants dresses not because I couldn't have gleaned enough snippets to construct a piece but because in the time I've had available to reflect some of the primary themes of the period I've been aware of the servants of that time more as ghostly half seen black and white shadows than as men and women living and working in a coloured in world. This humble sketch seems to sum up what we might imagine of their lot yet of course they would also have laughed together and held their heads up high.

The early nineteenth-century maid. By William Brocas (1762-1837), pencil drawing c.1800 (National Library of Ireland)


As I've looked at more and more black paper cut silhouettes from this period, as inspiration for the 5 black dresses I would make (please see here), the colour that is black has taken on a density and a presence. Though I have read, and believe, that the art of the paper cut silhouette in fact democratized portraiture and made the capture of one's self-image more affordable to the masses it remained true that the image in my mind of the servants of that time would be better portrayed not by looking at the cut out shape of a figure but by looking at what is left behind, the background that figure has been cut out of.

For this seems to better portray their ghostly presence and/or conspicuous absence from the general impression we largely have of that period. They would have kept the whole show on the road but it's hard to flesh out the detail, to visualise real individuals. The details of their lives and their clothes have been less well preserved, and therefore have more generally disintegrated, with the passing of time.

Of the few images I found of servants here is:

Title: A Milkmaid

Creator: John Augustus Atkinson, 1775–1831

Date: undated; Medium: Pen and brown ink, watercolor and graphite on moderately thick, slightly textured, beige wove paper. Dimensions:Sheet: 12 7/8 × 3 3/8 inches (32.7 × 8.6 cm) Inscription(s)/Marks/Lettering: Inscribed on back top center in graphite: "34"; on back center in graphite: "27"Credit Line: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

And there is the image of a housemaid here:

Whilst I was seeing such an impression in my mind I didn't know that in fact the creation of this style of silhouette, or absence thereof, was not unpractised. The man or woman being portrayed by the silhouette artist might have been portrayed as the positive of a cream/white piece of paper or they might indeed have been portrayed as the missing form from a similarly coloured page. The woman on the right is unknown, as you can see here, could it be that she was indeed a servant? The hairstyle leads me to believe not but it's an intriguing idea than during this time when the background that was society ran on the labour of the unsung masses the form of portraiture that became popular did not require the portrayal of features, simply the outline form.