Do maids in France really wear those skimpy outfits while keeping house?

Of course not. A mini-skirt, stiletto heels, and fishnet stockings is not the most practical outfit when it comes to vacuuming floors or scrubbing toilets. Depending upon the formality of the household, a traditional European maid or housekeeper might wear a knee-length blue, black, or grey dress with a white apron (not unlike The Brady Bunch’s Alice). And if she values her spine, she’ll wear nurse’s oxfords or athletic shoes rather than high heels.

So where did the stereotype of the slinky French maid uniform come from? During the late 19th century, the high-kicking Can-Can dancers of Paris were considered scandalous and were often the cause of nightclubs being shut down for “public nudity” (that being the exposed bit of thigh between the top of the stocking and the edge of the underpants the dancers revealed when they lifted their skirts).

It became an American burlesque cliché to stage a comedy skit featuring a hapless, uncomprehending, lithe young French housekeeper in scanty clothing finding herself in compromising situations. Her dress, naturally, was a skimpy version of the black and white outfit a standard French housekeeper would wear. It was just risqué enough to titillate audiences without getting closed down by the censors, and the character of the French maid stuck around long enough to become responsible for the ubiquitous costume of the same name.