The absolute “must-have” accessory of the season for the Ladies Who Lunch is – of all things – a Ladies Maid. The mania for all things Downton Abbey has reached such a fevered pitch in New York that domestic staffing companies are being deluged with requests for qualified applicants. For my part, I have spent the better part of each day since Downton Abbey began wishing I had a personal valet to brush my clothes, polish my shoes, and most of all, tend to my tuxedo studs and cufflinks. The duties of a gentleman’s valet haven’t really changed in the last 100 years. The same cannot be said of a ladies maid. Now what exactly would a ladies maid do in 2013, as opposed to 1913? Is today’s ladies maid expected to hand wash Spanx and help her mistress squeeze into her favorite skinny jeans?
I gave some serious thought to the potential responsibilities of a modern ladies maid and I decided that the burden should actually lie with the mistress. Any woman considering hiring someone specifically to manage her daily dressing needs should evaluate whether or not she actually has a wardrobe worthy of a proper ladies maid. Are her hosiery and lingerie worth the effort for her very own Miss O’Brien to don cotton gloves to handle them? Are her shoes and bags timeless classics that merit extra loving care? And what of the clothes? The clothes, I say.
Fans of my column know that I make no secret of my enduring passion for the dying art of Haute Couture. I thought I might point out a few of my favorite looks from the recent Paris couture shows as a way to illustrate a wardrobe worthy of a ladies maid.
Assuming that today’s ladies maid “lives in”, she would dress her mistress for her daytime activities such as committee meetings, luncheons and shopping. Lace day dresses are simply de rigeur this season. Housemaids may have knocked middle class mistresses down a peg for wearing machine maid lace in Gosford Park, but even a Paris-trained ladies maid would swoon to care for Alexis Mabille’s lace day dress. Off-the-shoulder and above-the-knee, this magnificent garment would require even the most detail-oriented ladies maid to inspect her mistress thoroughly before sending her out into public.
Any woman aspiring to have a ladies maid simply must have several of that staple of the well dressed woman’s wardrobe – the Chanel suit. This season’s jacket features a trompe l’oeil blouse. It might be sacrilege to carry anything other than the iconic 2.55 bag in lambskin, but those classic chain straps are the sworn enemy of hand woven wool tweed. Today’s ladies maid no doubt spends many an afternoon carefully pulling careless snags back into their proper places.
Raf Simons may have brought modernity to the venerable House of Christian Dior, but the materials and construction of his métier still demand the expert care of the Madame Paulettes and Miss O’Briens of the world. Even a seemingly simple day dress incorporates classic corsetry, dramatic draping, and exquisite embroidery.
A hundred years ago, a ladies maid might have spent most of her afternoon pressing her mistress’ gown for dinner. Today’s couture gowns are notoriously devoid of today’s labour saving technically advanced fabrics and this season’s signature Valentino gowns feature an asymmetrical kerchief hem that would challenge the skills of even the most experienced ladies’ maid – trained in Paris or not. Perhaps when interviewing a ladies maid you might have her press an Anne Fonteyne blouse as a sort of test to see if she can handle the challenging demands of your evening wardrobe.
If your day – and evening – wardrobes merit the ceaseless attentions of a ladies maid, then by all means proceed with your quest for your own Miss O’Brien. If not, perhaps it’s time to consider stepping up your fashion game…
– Joseph Ungoco
Runway Photos: Style.com
Image Layout: Second City Style