Dressing the female server

Clearly restaurant uniforms and costumes serve a variety of practical purposes, especially if they are comfortable, easy to move in, and well supplied with pockets. They mark their wearers as restaurant staff rather than patrons. Some go a step further by carrying out a restaurant’s decor or theme. Still others promise to bring male customers in the door.

Even though they share common characteristics, three types can be distinguished as described above: the functional, the decorative, and the alluring. Each has its own separate history.

Surprisingly, the oldest are alluring costumes that bring customers in the door.

Most restaurant and hotel dining room servers in the 19th century were male. Female servers usually worked in the lower types of eating and drinking places. They were often viewed as women of loose morals if not downright criminals; enticing male patrons as well as taking abuse from them were part of the job.

As early as the 1860s, music halls, also known as concert saloons, began heavily advertising the presence of “pretty waiter girls” whose job was to deliver beer and cocktails to male patrons. Their outfits were referred to as “fantastic,” “with short petticoats,” “microscopic,” or resembling “extremely reduced ballet dress.”

Reformers eventually succeeded in eliminating pretty waiter girls by banning the sale of alcohol in music halls. But the realization that female servers dressed in scanty costumes could attract customers did not disappear. In the mid-1890s, some cafes introduced women dressed in knee-length bloomers that showed off their legs. Although bloomers also had some practical advantages, that was not what attracted crowds of gawking male customers.

Dressing servers as pretty waiter girls continued in the 20th century and right into the present. In the 1930s, drive-ins dressed carhops in drum majorette costumes with shorts and bare midriffs; Playboy bunnies came along in the 1960s, as did topless waitresses and bordello-themed restaurants with servers in red and black corsets; in the 1980s came “breastaurant” chains such as Hooters, with Twin Peaks and Tilted Kilts arriving in the 2000s, all with servers wearing regulation big smiles and low cut tops and short shorts or micro-kilts.

The ability to attract large tips clearly plays a significant role in women’s willingness to perform an almost vaudevillian sexy server role. It was said that the 1860s pretty waiter girls, who enticed patrons to drink heavily, received a portion of the check rather than regular wages. Some 1930s drive-ins paid no wages either, figuring the carhops received generous tips.

About the same time as pretty waiter girls arrived in music halls, “good girls” wearing modest decorative costumes took up their serving trays at fairs to raise money for civil war soldiers. At New York’s fair, for instance, they dressed as Normandy peasants with picturesque caps. It soon became fashionable to dress female servers in costumes such as Martha Washington at a “Boston tea party” or Swiss peasants at an 1876 Centennial Exhibition restaurant named The Dairy.

The popularity of decorative novelty costumes carried over to commercial restaurants such as the tea rooms of the early 20th century where Asian and Colonial motifs were popular. Next it spread to theme restaurants of all kinds and servers could be found wearing togas, grass skirts, kilts, Bavarian dirndls, sarongs, etc., some of these — such as steakhouse wench costumes — revealing as well as decorative.

As far as I can tell, Asian-American women were never hired as servers unless they agreed to work in their “native costumes.” Black women rarely worked as servers in white restaurants, but when they did they often wore Mammy costumes. I can’t decide if it was a step forward or backward when Alice Foote MacDougall hired light-skinned Black women to dress like Italian peasants at Firenze in NYC in the 1920s.

As is true of alluring waitress costumes, decorative costumes never fell completely out of favor and continue in use today.

Fred Harvey, who ran lunch rooms and restaurants for the Santa Fe railroad, introduced functional, standardized uniforms as early as 1883 and a Denver restaurant claimed in 1895 that its unionized “lady waiters” were “dressed in complete uniform, something never before introduced in this country.” But in most eating places women simply wore street clothes such as shirtwaists and long skirts, possibly with a long apron or pinafore, when they served meals. This began to change in the early 20th century, primarily in the better-capitalized, modern restaurant chains.

The spread of standardized uniforms in the teens and twenties represented a significant change. Although the status of waitresses did not rise dramatically, wearing a uniform did add a professional dimension to the job, putting wearers on a par approaching nurses, police, soldiers, and others with authority. A newspaper columnist in 1928 named Mary Marshall observed that wearing uniforms had recently become “a privilege rather than a disgrace” as they were adopted by dentists and doctors, telephone operators, bank tellers, hairdressers, department store saleswomen, and waitresses.

Part of the explanation for standardized waitress uniforms arose from concerns with restaurant cleanliness in the years before WWI. But their adoption was also a sign of a growing restaurant industry looking for legitimacy. The development of functional uniforms occurred as restaurants were run more systematically. Specialized manufacturers and suppliers emerged to furnish restaurants — separate from hotels — with kitchen equipment, furniture, china, linens, uniforms, and food products.

Another significant change in how female servers were dressed began to take place in the 1970s, influenced by the women’s movement. A growing number of Americans expressed dislike of revealing costumes. A restaurant critic focusing on Monterey Jack’s at Rancho Bernardo in California in 1978, for instance, cited the restaurant’s corny decor, “near total disregard for food,” and “exaggerated and tasteless attire” that debased the waitresses.

The tide was definitely turning in the 1980s. In a 1993 article in Gender and Society, author Elaine J. Hall’s research showed that the more “prestigious and trendy” a restaurant was, the more likely all its serving staff, both male and female, would be referred to as waiters and would wear “generic male uniforms.” A unisex uniform is usually composed of dark pants and shirt worn with a vest or a long bistro-type apron. Women servers in restaurants that have adopted unisex uniforms, she noted, see them as “an important aspect of gender equality.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2018


Filed under restaurant industry, uniforms & costumes, women

13 responses to “Dressing the female server

  1. Jan, this was really interesting. And it’s the first time I’ve ever seen the word “breastaurant”–did you make that up?!

  2. This is a neat look at the history of wait staff and their uniforms. I loved the bit on the Harvey Girls. Have you seen that Judy Garland movie? It’s pretty cool. Also wondering if you’ve done a post on the Harvey Houses that dotted the Santa Fe railroad line? I have a Harvey house cookbook and love the recipes and history it gives.

  3. Michael

    Re: Iris Roth “Disney Characters”

    At Disneyland (California), the waitresses do not wear “Disney Characters costumes”. The waitresses wear “appropriate period costumes”. For instance, on the “Main Street” eating establishments, the waitress uniforms are appropriate for 1890-1910.

    In “Tommorowland”, the waitress uniforms look “space age (from a typical 1950(s) Science Fiction movie”. “Frontierland” waitresses are appropriate to the frontier era (pre 1920). Of course being Disneyland, the uniforms are suitable for a “G” audience!

  4. Shayne

    What a great read this morning. Well done!

  5. Iris Roth

    That was fun. How about the Hooters extreme outfits. I assume in Disneyland they dressed like Disney characters. Anyway it was interesting.

    Did you read the article about prostitutes in the Chronicle on Sat on Portals of the Past. Lizzie just sent me 6 emails and answered all my questions. She quit the photography class which made sense.xxxxxM💜🐈

    On Sun, Feb 4, 2018 at 9:56 AM, Restaurant-ing through history wrote:

    > victualling posted: ” Clearly restaurant uniforms and costumes serve a > variety of practical purposes, especially if they are comfortable, easy to > move in, and well supplied with pockets. They mark their wearers as > restaurant staff rather than patrons. Some go a step furthe” >

  6. misenplacememoir

    I wish I had a picture of me in 1974 as a fifteen year old waitress (server wasn’t a term yet) at beachfront Sea Scoop on Maui. It was a black French maid costume style dress with white lace trim and ruffled sleeves. I felt less than sexy, for sure.

  7. Michael

    During the 1960(s) and 1970(s), Charlie Brown’s restaurant waitresses in California wore a very distinctive uniform. The upper part of the brown dress looked “colonial style” (1770 era) with a (very) low cut front with white ruffles, 1/4 sleeves with white ruffles, and a wide just above the knee skirt open in the front! Underneath was a huge white petticoat clearly visible with the open skirt front. I saw the same uniform (black dress with white petticoat) being worn by the “bar maid” in a Loves restaurant in Chula Vista, California during the 1980(s)!
    Does anyone know where pictures of the waitress uniform used by Charlie Brown’s and Loves can be found? Or maybe, who manufactured or sold the uniforms?
    The uniform would be perfect for attending a Cosplay Convention!!!

  8. wonderful info here 🙂

  9. Leslie

    I have a catalogue of the Shane Uniform company, from the late 1950’s or early 1960’s, and the uniforms are impressive. Neat, trim, attractive. I bought the catalogue after I had bought a uniform which is shown in it: a gorgeous turquoise dress with matching apron (sadly, there’s no matching cap). It’s nylon, and I don’t imagine it could have been very comfortable. I wouldn’t know, because it’s about 20 sizes smaller than I am! But quite a few of the ones in the catalogue were cotton. I guess it was a trade-off of comfort and breathability versus dirt resistance and no need to iron.

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