Scandalous Bloomers to Gingham Dresses

We can quickly picture a classic diner waitress uniform: a checkered dress, probably in blue, pink, yellow or black and red, with a white apron, a white collar, and short sleeves with peaked white trim. And, maybe, one of those little hats. The “diner waitress” outfit is essentially the same whether you’re imagining Ellen Burstein wearing it in the film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, or Joan Crawford wearing one in 1945’s Mildred Pierce. That iconic waitress uniform gives us a sense of continuity in the world — mainly, because it has remained unchanged since the 1930s.

Over 175 years ago, people mostly ate at home or at their friends homes. But by 1849, The Home Journal reported that there were restaurants and cafes “on almost every corner of the street,” leading people to “sensual excesses.” In the 1890s, some restaurants employed bloomer-clad women as “waiter-girls”: Women began entering the restaurant industry in full force by the early 1900s, often to take the place of male workers on strike. And as the diner became more common by the 1920s and ‘30s, so did female servers.

During the Great Depression, people weren’t buying anything else, but they still wanted to eat: Indeed, a slice of pie from a diner might be one of the few luxuries people could afford. Therefore, restaurants were one of the few places still hiring, and respectable women joined men in search of jobs. The new workforce needed a uniform that was serviceable, attractive, and respectable:

Enter the traditional “diner waitress” uniform. Though there wasn’t one definitively “original” design, a pattern emerged among mass- produced uniforms. The gingham print in bright colors, however, stood in stark contrast to the dark-colored maid’s uniform. While bright colors were designed to be cheerful and fun in a time when no one had any money, they also reflected some new textile technologies. Fashions during the ‘30s were generally a bit more colorful than a decade prior — newly available Rayon fabrics were inexpensive and very easy to dye. For diner owners, taking advantage of different colors allowed restaurants to differentiate themselves. The typical uniform was mass-produced in the ‘30s by sellers like Pic-Wic and Dix-Make, and were sold for about $3 each. Employers only needed to specify the model and color to their employees.

The uniforms also featured practical elements. Many of them came with pockets, which would be essential if a waitress needed a place to store a pencil to take down orders. Meanwhile, the skirts were short enough to allow for easy movement, or, maybe, to keep with the fashion of the times. Hilariously, the “diner waitress” design never changed. While some drive-in restaurants experimented with less-traditional uniforms, the basic form stayed the same — albeit with slightly shorter skirts. In the post-war 1950s (considered by many to be the “golden era” of the American diner), waitresses’ hemlines were indeed shorter.

The iconic allure of the ‘30s diner uniform proved too strong even for a fashion legend. In 1965, the Howard Johnson’s soda fountain/restaurant chain drummed up major publicity by commissioning the House of Dior to create “a new waitress uniform,” to be worn by servers at its 1,000 locations nationwide. Apparently great deal of work went into the redesign, but Dior’s new uniform emerged literally identical to the old one: dresses with an aqua houndstooth check, paired with a white apron outlined in aqua.

Restaurants that want to evoke nostalgia often employ the same classic diner waitress design. The uniform evokes a period in American history where a tremendous number of women entered the workforce for the first time, a time when people worked together to overcome terrible financial straits.

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