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An Old-Fashioned Question

In my childhood bedroom, on one of many shelves full of books, rests a copy of An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott, better known as the author of Little Women.  This 1870 novel contains the passage below, in which a group of young women gathers to engage in some charitable sewing and not-so-charitable chatter.  In retrospect, this may have been my first exposure to the knockoff question:

"Hush! Trix has the floor."

"If they spent their wages properly, I should n't mind so much, but they think they must be as fine as anybody, and dress so well that it is hard to tell mistress from maid. Why our cook got a bonnet just like mine (the materials were cheaper, but the effect was the same), and had the impertinence to wear it before my face. I forbid it, and she left, of course, which made papa so cross he would n't give me the camel's hair shawl he promised this year."

"It 's perfectly shameful!" said Miss Perkins, as Trix paused out of breath. "Servants ought to be made to dress like servants, as they do abroad; then we should have no more trouble," observed Miss Perkins, who had just made the grand tour, and had brought home a French maid.

"Perky don't practise as she preaches," whispered Belle to Polly, as Miss P. became absorbed in the chat of her other neighbors. "She pays her chamber girl with old finery; and the other day, when Betsey was out parading in her missis's cast-off purple plush suit, Mr. Curtis thought she was mademoiselle, and bowed to her. He is as blind as a bat, but recognized the dress, and pulled off his hat to it in the most elegant style. Perky adores him, and was mad enough to beat Betsey when she told the story and giggled over it. Betsey is quite as stylish and ever so much prettier than Perky, and she knows it, which is an aggravation."

Alcott, who spent part of her childhood in a utopian social community and became a noted abolitionist and feminist, obviously enjoyed holding social pretensions up to ridicule.  These few paragraphs alone could support an entire lecture:  why would a cook allegedly imitate the style of her employer's daughter?  how did advances in textile production make this possible?  why were European household staff more likely to wear distinctive uniforms than their American counterparts?  what is the role of clothing in constructing social status?

Today, of course, the mistress would be as likely to imitate the maid as vice versa -- fashion trends trickle up from the street as often as down from the haute couture.  In addition, the perspective of the milliner who created the original bonnet might come into play (not that many of us still wear hats on a daily basis, or have chambermaids, for that matter). 

Still, I have to smile when I think about our great-grandmothers gossiping about knockoffs.