It's amazing how quickly you can picture a classic diner waitress uniform: a checkered dress, probably in blue, pink, or yellow. A white apron, a white collar, and short sleeves with peaked white trim. Also, maybe, one of those little hats. The "diner waitress" outfit is essentially the same whether you're imagining Keri Russell wearing it in the 2007 film Waitress or Joan Crawford wearing one in 1945's Mildred Pierce. That iconic waitress uniform gives you a sense of continuity in the world — mainly, because it has remained unchanged since the 1930s.
Restaurants themselves date back about another hundred years. For much of the 19th century, respectable families would have largely dined 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." When women worked in those establishments catering to men, their outfits sometimes played up the access to "sensual excesses" — although that meant something different at the time. In the 1890s, some restaurants employed bloomer-clad women as "waiter-girls": Bloomers stopped above the ankle, where shoes had to be laced up, so men would often gather in crowds to stare at the tantalizing shape of the woman's ankle, covered by her boots. According to Restaurant-ing Through History, one Chicago restaurant with bloomers-wearing waitresses was even shut down on "moral grounds." However, those stunts were generally short-lived, and saying that bloomers were once a "typical waitress outfit" would be as misleading as saying that the modern-day Hooters outfit is "typical."
There were a few other instances of women in restaurants prior to the 20th century: Notably, the Harvey Girls worked as waitresses along the transcontinental railroad as early as 1880. But the vast majority of restaurants featured a male waitstaff. For many years that remained the case: Although tearooms offered a place where well-brought-up ladies could dine, they were generally staffed by attractive male waiters in dashing dinner jackets.
As diners became more common in the 1920s and '30s, so did female servers.
But women began entering the restaurant industry in full force by the early 1900s, often to take the place of male workers on strike. (Photos from that time reveal waitresses were working everywhere from tea houses to restaurants, and in Europe, on board airships.) 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. Women were willing to work cheap, and diner owners found that a female staff could entice both male clients (who enjoyed having pretty women bringing them food) and female clients (who felt more comfortable among other women).
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 white — often detachable — trim around the sleeve was attractive, but more importantly, it made the outfit reminiscent of those worn by ladies' maids (as did the little hat). Imagine a stereotypical French maid outfit: Chances are, you're picturing the same thing as a diner waitress uniform, but in black. The typical waitress uniform therefore needed to seem servile enough to make customers feel as though they were getting a little bit of luxurious treatment with their coffee and dessert. A great scene in Mildred Pierce shows how effective this reference is: In the film, Mildred's daughter finds a new waitress uniform her housewife-secretly-turned-waitress mother has ordered, and assumes that the outfit must be for their maid. (She does note it's of a cheaper-quality fabric than the one the maid usually gets.)
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 (less, the catalogues always cheerily note, if you buy in bulk). 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 time and allow a waitress to show off her nyloned legs a la Claudette Colbert. Skirts had shortened during the '20s, but flapper dresses were designed to be somewhat androgynous, and not nipped at the waist. The 1930s saw a return to more traditionally ladylike styles (women were meant to have waists again, which is kind of a downer when you're, say, eating Thanksgiving dinner), but dresses retained the knee-length skirts. In that decade, the design on waitress uniforms wasn't all that different from what you might have seen a woman wearing on the street.
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. Some historians attribute the post-WWII shift in fashion to the "Hemline Index," a 1926 theory by economist George Taylor that argues skirts usually rise in times of economic prosperity. The Hemline Index — whether or not it's a reliable indicator of economic trends — does makes sense anecdotally and historically. If women could only afford a few pair of nylons, they would want longer skirts, if only to hide rips in those nylons. Either way, 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. (The big change, ostensibly, was an aqua outline around the traditionally white apron.)
Of course, restaurants today have a much wider variety of uniforms, from little black dresses to the short shorts of Hooters. Still, restaurants that want to capitalize on 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. And, of course, it also evokes images of old-fashioned apple pie — which is always a good thing.
—Jennifer Wright is the author of It Ended Badly: The 13 Worst Break-Ups in History, due out Fall 2015. Follow her on twitter @JenAshleyWright.