Diary of a Chambermaid Depresses, Confuses, & Delights Me

9

I am a total francophile, even more so than an anglophile, but nonetheless, 19th-century French literature is just The Most Depressing Thing Ever — a fact that I am reminded of whenever I watch an adaptation of a 19th-century French novel (because I have at least learned to avoid reading any of them. Sorry high-school French teachers of yore!). All of them seem to feature people who are living bleak, unfulfilling lives who then end very badly (usually dead, as prostitutes, having murdered their children, etc.). Bleh!

Nonetheless, the images I was seeing of Diary of a Chambermaid (2015) — directed by Benoît Jacquot (Farewell My Queen) — intrigued me because the costumes looked so damn good. I finally got a chance to watch the film (it’s just recently been in theaters) and — yep! The costumes were smashing, the plot was confusing and depressing.

Granted, the original novel — published in 1900 and written by Octave Mirbeau — is SUPPOSED to be bleak. It’s a commentary on middle-class polite society and the slavery that was domestic service. Nonetheless, I sure wouldn’t mind it if 19th-century French writers could have considered showing how bleak life is while also throwing in a cute guy to run off with and a happy ending!

Basically, current French cinema It Girl Léa Seydoux (The Last MistressRobin HoodMysteries of LisbonMidnight in ParisFarewell My Queen) plays Célestine, a professional lady’s maid/housemaid who takes on a new job with an upper-middle-class family in Normandy. As we watch the indignities of her job and life, the film is intercut with scenes from previous jobs that she’s held, and we see situations/employers who are both good and bad, and learn about Célestine’s inner emotional life and reactions to these situations. Interestingly, Célestine is not the innocent victim — she clearly has a spine and agency, sometimes submitting in an effort to make her life easier, but other times acting to stick it to her employers (and sometimes getting herself into trouble in the process).

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

FYI to potential employers: Célestine thinks you are all assholes. Granted, she’s right.

Over time, she becomes fascinated with another servant in her current job — Joseph — who has some Very Questionable Interests, including anti-Semitism (if this plot point confuses you, look up the Dreyfus Affair for the context that the film doesn’t give you; if you’d like to read a review with some good historical context, check out this one from Fiction and Film for French Historians). And is too old and leathery for Célestine, imho. And while the ending is slightly vague, it’s very clear that Célestine is not riding off to some mythical sunset happily-ever-after. I guess if you’re going to adapt a source, it’s good to stay true to that source, but it doesn’t mean that it’s a fun ride for the viewer!

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

This pairing confused me on a NUMBER of levels. Way too old and leathery? Check. Anti-Semite and possible murderer? Check. Shady future job offers? Check. Célestine needs to read The Feminine Mystique or something.

The film doesn’t drag or anything, it’s just not chipper, and I’m still unclear as to why Célestine makes many of the choices she does, despite the various shitty situations she finds herself in.

Luckily, there’s a saving grace — the costumes!

Costumes in Diary of a Chambermaid

Anaïs Romand (The Children of the Century, Les Destinées, The Last Mistress, House of Tolerance) got the c. 1900 costumes Spot the F— ON. Célestine isn’t a scullery maid — she’s got a lovely wardrobe that primarily consists of tailored suits, but there’s a nice variety and some of the ensembles are really striking. But even more than that, everything looks pretty close to accurate for c. 1900 to my eye (okay, so I’m not an Edwardian expert), minus the pigeon-breast silhouette that films like A Room With a View get so right, and one specific costume that I’ll talk about below. That being said, there are some lower-down-the-class-spectrum characters (particularly the cook) who definitely wear very workaday clothes … while most of the employers that Célestine interact with are upper-middle-class with wardrobes to match.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

Célestine’s uniform for her current-day job. Basic black, but I like the puffed sleeve cap and the bit of fullness gathered into the waistband.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

In one of the more substantial flashback scenes, Célestine is maid to an elderly lady and her tuberculosisy nephew.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

She’s treated REALLY well in this house, plus it’s right on the ocean, so her uniform is 1. nicer and 2. very nautical.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

On her way to Normandy from Paris to take on her new, current-day job…

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

Célestine wears this AMAZE-BALLS green silk taffeta ensemble with embroidered collar and lots of gorgeous details.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

Although she’s originally from Brittany, Célestine has lived in Paris for a long time, hence her super-chic wardrobe.

Compare that suit to this 1903 fashion plate and you'll see many similarities. American fashions, Autumn 1903, L'Art de la Mode, Claremont Colleges Fashion Plate Collection.

Compare that suit to this 1903 fashion plate and you’ll see many similarities. American fashions, Autumn 1903, L’Art de la Mode, Claremont Colleges Fashion Plate Collection.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

Contrast that with her employer’s wardrobe, which is very nice, but more mid- to late-1890s than Célestine’s fashion-forward ensembles. This is a teagown with  “Watteau” (18th-century robe à la française style) back.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

Other of her employer’s outfits are more of-the-moment.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

The bodice of this gown has some really lovely details.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

Here’s a very practical jacket and skirt ensemble.

tumblr_nt2zgnuqgz1s9f8i8o7_r1_250

The floral bands on the jacket and the blue trim on the skirt really elevate things.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

I think this is the same hat … this shot is from another flashback, where Célestine is more down on her luck.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

This was probably my favorite costume because of THAT COLLAR.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

It’s a smashing fitted jacket with high sleeve puffs.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)
Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

This is the kind of blouse she wears under these suits. They only have a hint of the poufy pigeon-breast silhouette, which I missed seeing.

This is that famous "pigeon breast" silhouette that we're missing, where the blouse/bodice is poufed out at the waist in front. American shirt-waists, Spring 1902, The Delineator, Claremont Colleges Fashion Plate Collection.

This is that famous “pigeon breast” silhouette that we’re missing, where the blouse/bodice is poufed out at the waist in front. American shirt-waists, Spring 1902, The Delineator, Claremont Colleges Fashion Plate Collection.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

At one point, Célestine receives an offer to move to another city and run a bar. This is her imagining what that would be like — a quick shot.

Édouard Manet, Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, 1881-1882, Courtauld Institute of Art

What’s wonderful is that they clearly copied Célestine’s barmaid outfit from Édouard Manet’s classic painting Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1881-1882, Courtauld Institute of Art). What’s not so great is that the painting dates from about 20 years earlier than the movie is set. Luckily, what they show doesn’t look totally weird in the context of the film, since you only see Célestine from the waist up.

Compare the Manet painting to these French styles from 1902 and you'll see just how different the silhouette is. French fashions, Summer 1902, Bureaux du Journal, Claremont Colleges Fashion Plate Collection.

Compare the Manet painting to these French styles from 1902, and you’ll see just how different the silhouette is. French fashions, Summer 1902, Bureaux du Journal, Claremont Colleges Fashion Plate Collection.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

I thought the hair was really nicely done. They got the silhouette right-up-on-top-of-the-head correct, but they also found ways to vary the different hairstyles. Note Célestine’s hair is less poufy and has curly bangs, while her employer’s hair is more Gibson Girl puff.

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

And then this fellow maid (left) that Célestine befriends has much plainer hair.

Diary of a Chambermaid is out in many theaters right now, and I’m sure will soon come to DVD and streaming, so keep your eyes peeled!

 

Have you seen Diary of a Chambermaid yet? What’s your take?

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About the author

Kendra

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Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

9 Responses

  1. Melinda

    Hi! I have a problem with your comparision dating, the novel was published in 1900, so why do you show fashion plates 2-3 years ahead??? The dresses, the un-pigeonbreast shirtwaists are spot-on for 1898-’99, probably the years when the novel was imagined and built up to be ready to the 1900s publishment. Also the jacket’s realy high Valois or Stuart collar (as they called it back then) is accurate to the gay ’90s but disappeared at the turn of the century. And I have one problem with the flick costumes; namely the emerald green tarveling dress from taffeta, 100% inaccurate to travel (especially for a maid), but 100% accurate to visit or promenade. Traveling dresses were made from strudy fabrics (cheviot, loden, alpaca or other “English” suitings) with minimal trimmings in grey or drab colors. Otherwise, saw the movie lately, my hubby who has little-to-no interest in historical costuming, also loved the dresses, especially the high collars :)

    Reply
    • Daniel Milford-Cottam

      I do have to agree – the green taffeta, while gorgeous, is not really suitable for travelling – almost all the other costumes here would have been more appropriate to travel in. The taffeta is gorgeous but I would think it was her Sunday best/going out dress.

      You also don’t really see the exaggerated pouter pigeon/pouched bosom silhouette for a year or two after 1900, so I don’t miss it here.

      What does also bug me is that the employer’s “fashion forward” dress is SO fashion forward that it’s actually more like a 1908-10 dress than a 1900 dress, particularly with the long tight sleeves, round-necked tabard style over-bodice styling, and chemisette. Late 1890s sleeves are still puffed, with at least a little kick at the shoulders, or puffed quite closely to the arm (not exaggeratedly gigot like they were a few years earlier),

      Here is a dress (I wrote about it for the V&A’s Wedding Dresses book) that was actually made and worn by a lady’s maid in 1899 – albeit a London one rather than a French one, but it is as close as you’ll get to seeing exactly what a smart, fashion-conscious woman in that kind of situation (with presumably a similar income) would choose to make for her best dress. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O353681/wedding-dress-sams-harriett-nee/

      So I have no problem with the character actually having a beautiful green silk taffeta dress, particularly if she’s bought the embroidered collar ready-worked and the lace is inexpensive machine lace. As Harriett Joyce shows, it’s perfectly possible for a servant to make herself a really fashionable, smart looking, swishy silk dress with swanky satin and lace trimming, but yeah, you wouldn’t really travel in it. Also, note that there’s no pouter bosom in Harriett’s dress, yet, but plenty of ruching/draping in front – it’s just not yet happening, but give it a couple of years and every lady’s rocking the drapey floopy front.

      Reply
      • Kendra

        I stand corrected by 2-3 years! I’m SO not an Edwardian expert, sorry I flubbed it.

        And that suit at the V&A is a stunner!

        Reply
        • Emily Barry

          I agree with most of the comments (especially the travelling suit) but I don’t agree that the high, flared collar had disappeared by 1900. I have seen it extremely commonly through 1902 in various sources, and in the 1902 Sear’s & Roebuck almost every winter jacket or cloak has a collar like this one. I’ve even seen it as late as 1904 in the Delineator Magazine (for an evening cloak), though it was certainly much less common by then. I love it! It’s such an iconic look for the period.

          Reply
  2. Malicia

    Very interesting article ! I liked how you compared the movie’s costume with the actual ones. That gives us perspective. And now I want a high collar coat for this winter too :-P

    Reply
  3. brocadegoddess

    The only other thing I’d add to the above comments is that the tea gown isn’t really behind-the-times either. Teagowns were a slightly different animal from other fashions and the Watteau-back, full-sleeved ones were still being worn at the turn of the century and almost until 1910.

    The comparison with the Manet painting is a great point! It’s actually what I immediately thought of, too as soon as I saw that still – and then I looked slightly down and saw the painting! Lol

    Reply

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