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A French maid outfit is a black and white costume that is loosely based on the garb of maids in the 19th century. It is a popular design for erotic fantasy outfits and theatrical representations of maids. The basic components of the outfit include a black dress or two-piece outfit with a white apron. While a French maid outfit can be made in any color, black and white are considered the traditional and most recognizable motif. There are many variations on this basic design, and the dress may have very different appearances depending on its intended usage.
Common accessories for a French maid outfit include chokers, feather dusters, and thigh-high stockings. Garter belts are also common, particularly in erotic renditions of the costume. A small cap may be worn, although lace headbands are also popular. Shoes can be of any design, including pumps, flats, and platform shoes. If bought as a costume set, the garment may include accessories.
Fabrics used to make these outfits for erotic purposes are often shiny and inappropriate for cleaning work. These include satin, vinyl, and latex. A more conservative French maid outfit might be made of cotton or polyester. These outfits are rarely used as professional uniforms, so the ability to perform manual labor in the garment is usually not considered in its design.
Most French maid uniforms are designed for women, but they are also sometimes used by men. There is a somewhat large tradition of use of the French maid costume in sexual domination of both men and women. When a male partner dons the outfit and is verbally or sexually dominated by a female partner, the male partner is generally identified as a sissy maid. This use of the French maid outfit identifies the nature of servitude as submissive and uses the symbol of a maid to play out a dominance and submission fantasy.
While it is common to see erotic versions of the outfit, it is also common to see extremely conservative versions with additional ruffles and lace used as gothic Lolita dresses in Japan. Additionally, while there are explicitly sexual versions of this costume, which may consist of no more than a decorated bra and underwear with an apron attached, the costume is not always this revealing in all erotic fantasy versions. Many erotic French maid costumes are somewhat conservative, providing at least as much coverage as a short dress. The purpose of the dress and the desires of the wearer largely inform the appearance of the outfit, which is why these costumes often bear little resemblance to one another.
I had to chuckle at the "unsuitable for cleaning purposes" line. Really. I doubt any French maid costumes are actually donned while people are cleaning, unless they are, in fact, a sissy maid, and that's what the dominant partner wants the submissive to wear while cleaning.
I'm not sure how the costume captured the imagination for maids in general, but it definitely calls up an image in the mind. In the past, most maids wore black dresses, to distinguish them from their employers, if nothing else. In fact, it was often a mark of promotion to be able to wear a gray or light blue dress, if one was working "upstairs." Odd history.