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Liveried servants were the preserve of the rich, and were a status symbol. Their very presence in a household serving at the dining table, answering the door etc, or more importantly, being visible outside the household- going on their masters’ errands in the street, or adorning a coach- indicated wealth and status on the part of the employer. We have learnt about the heraldic and historic background to liveries in our last three posts.Today we shall look at these special uniforms as they developed throughout the 18th/early 19th centuries.
The uniforms were expensive, and in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, they certainly stood out, for they were becoming archaic in style, harking back to a past era. Liveries of the early to mid 18th century still retained a relation to military uniforms and court drew, but that all changed as the century wore on:
At the start of the century the footman’s livery was still relatively close to its origins in military and court dress, evocative of the gentleman retainer. As the century progressed fashions changed while livery ossified. ..By the 1790s..the kind of silver lace decorations that adorned a velvet livery coat stolen in London in 1795 was almost entirely confined, among civilians at least, to footmen. Livery had become a sartorial fossil albeit one that…was becoming increasingly elaborate and ostentatious in the second half of the century, a trend that may of some way to explain its fossilisation.
(John Styles, The Dress of the People, page 300-301.)
You can see this progression, from fashionable to arctic, in these illustrations, again, all taken from John Styles’ book.
Above is a painting by John Collet from 1763, illustrating a scene from Townley’s 1759 play High Life below Stairs. Both male servants wear restrained liveries…
Above is a mezzotint from 1772 showing another below-stairs scene in a grand household: the livery worn by the male servant, shown trying to impress the maid seated at the table, is now much more elaborate, his waistcoat adorned with much gold lace, as are the facings on his coat, which also sports gold buttons.
And finally we come to our favourite, (well my favourite) debunker of pomposity , Thomas Rowlandson in 1799. Here were have two Country Characters being rather forcibly “impressed’ by a fancy London footman in his full regalia, gold lace trimmed, note, topped with his powdered wig and bag.
This hair powder was an additional expense for the employer. As we have seen, footmen, in full regalia, wore powdered wigs. A tax on hair powder was levied between 1797 and 1869. This tax was introduced by Pitt and it was originally envisaged that the tax would raise £200,000 per annum for the Treasury. Virtually every man at that time either wore a wig which was powdered, or added powder to his own hair. Charles Fox, in opposition to Pitt, thought that the idea was delusional. He understood, quite rightly, that only half a dozen leaders of fashion needed to decide to change the mode of dressing their hair and the object of the tax would be frustrated. The effect of the introduction of the tax was quite dramatic, and was as Fox predicted: most people simply gave up wearing powder in their hair/wigs. Very soon only die-hards and liveried servants wore hair powder. Thus adding to the ever archaic appearance of servants in livery.
It might amuse you to know that the political opposition ceased to wear hair powder immediately on the introduction of the tax, and took to calling those who still wore the powder “guinea pigs“( in reference to the fee payable to the Treasury). In 1796 the yield for the tax was £210,136 but from then on the number of registered tax payers fell dramatically. By 1855 only liveried servants wore the powder. In that year only 997 servants were registered to be taxed on their powder( 951 in England, and 46 in Scotland). The yield by that time was £100 per year and it was discontinued as being unproductive, and too expensive to collect.
(See : A History of Taxation and Taxes in England by Stephen Dowell).
Not only did the use of powered wigs in livery uniforms add to the archaic effect, it also, among the ranks of the noveau riche, with their newly commissioned coats of arms, newly purchased houses in town and newly bought country estates, produced the desired effect of being from ancient lineage and of old money.
In addition to the cost of the livery and the tax on hair power, from 1777 male servants were subject to a special tax. An annual tax of one guinea per male servant was levied by the government. This tax was originally intended to help finance the war against the American’s struggle for independence, but, not surprisingly, the tax was retained after that war had ended. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that it was not repealed until 1937.
So, you can see just how expensive it was for an employer to set up a household with liveried servants.The extra expense of the uniform and the additional taxes paid on them mad ether expensive walking status symbols. And before I end this small series on livery, I have to share with you a set of photographs of some outstanding and extravagant livery,which explain all the elements I have tried to explain in the last four posts.
This set of livery was commissioned by the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham of Ashburnham Place, Sussex, in 1829 for his installation as Knight of the Garter at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Here are his footmen, in all their splendour, adorned with their powdered wigs, and wearing a costume(what else can you call it, seeing how theatrical it is?!) based on the colours used in his Arms- Gules(red) and Vert (green); and in addition, the gold lace or trimming is replaced by a woven braid made of a repeating pattern of a depiction of the Arms themselves.
You can see all the heraldic elements are very noticeably in place: he has taken the heraldic themes and run with them, to be brutally honest.
Even the braid festooned from the epaulettes has been woven in his heraldic colours. There is no mistaking that these servants are very definitely in his service, for they are walking advertisement for his ancient and costly lineage.