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How did “sexy milkmaid” become a popular look?

Square-neck, puff-sleeve tops and dresses are summer’s cheapest vacation.

A woman in a puff-sleeve dress and a horse stand by the ocean.
Square-neck, puff-sleeve dresses and blouses are inescapable this summer.
Doen

Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.

What they are: Crisp white square-neck, puff-sleeve blouses and dresses that give the impression that the wearer’s primary profession is milking cows or scrubbing the bow of a pirate ship. (But in a glamorous way, like in a Sofia Coppola movie.) There might be a corset element, like lacing, or other feminine touches such as smocking, ruching, or ruffles. Possible descriptors of this style: wenchcore, prairiecore, yodelcore.

Where they are: On celebrities, Instagram influencers, and probably the 20- and 30-something fashion-conscious women in your life. You’ll see them in the racks of your favorite adorable boutique and, as of this summer, in fast-fashion megachains like Forever 21. Perhaps most ironically, they are particularly prevalent in urban areas, presumably far away from the nearest dairy cow.

Why they’re everywhere: The first thing to know about any fashion trend is that if we’re covering it at Vox, that means it’s been around for a while. Rachel Tashjian, a style writer at GQ, tells Vox that she attributes the current omnipresence of milkmaid tops to Prada, which over the past few years has heavily featured puffy sleeves and corseted bodices. In the brand’s spring 2017 collection, creative director Miuccia Prada put square-neck crop tops over romantic blouses, and since then, other brands have followed suit.

But the average influencer isn’t wearing Prada most of the time. Brands like Reformation, known for sexy-cute dresses and tops in the $200 range that are beloved by young celebrities, were on the forefront of the trend over the past two summers, and have only leaned in more heavily this year. And when both Prada and Reformation are selling a certain look, it’s only a matter of time before the Asoses and the H&Ms are churning out even cheaper versions.

Reformation founder and CEO Yael Aflalo tells Vox that square necks and puff sleeves have been a staple of the collection since early spring, when the brand noticed that the Lacey dress had sold out fast. “We’ve definitely seen Victorian and peasant dressing becoming a lot more popular over the past couple of years — think Little House on the Prairie with a modern twist,” she says.

Aflalo has also watched the trend play out in pop culture: “We’re seeing these eras reflected in film at the moment too, with the release of movies like The Favourite, Midsommar, and Little Women. So we really got behind the trend — it’s a super effortless and easy detail to add to your wardrobe.” She says Reformation is still embracing the trend and doesn’t expect a slowdown anytime soon.

Reformation’s Belgium dress.
Reformation

The square-neck milkmaid top is just one of a series of eye-catching developments in women’s shirting. “The blouse has become a much more central part of a woman’s wardrobe over the past few seasons: really long or voluminous sleeves, or an interesting tent shape, or an unusual neckline, sometimes Edwardian high instead of Renaissance low,” Tashjian explains. Remember two years ago when every shirt randomly had its shoulders cut out? And who could forget that same year, when fancy brands began selling button-downs that were for some reason asymmetrical and covered with cutouts, ties, and pinstripes? In fashion’s desire to “elevate” the simple button-down or T-shirt, it ended up going a bridge too far. The milkmaid top could be considered a flirtier, pared-down version of the blouse that’s doing a little bit too much.

Tashjian says the trend is also related to other pastoral fashion trends like prairie dresses. “[It’s] puffy, romantic, girlish and fun rather than sophisticated and tough or obsessed with polish,” she explains. “It’s a dream of another kind of life, which sounds like a lot for one garment to do, but I think that’s what these pieces are about: a brief reverie about a more relaxed and even provincial way of living. It’s the least expensive vacation.”

Reformation/Facebook

There is also something about the idea of a milkmaid that is inherently sexy — it’s a profession you can easily imagine on the cover of a romance novel. After all, the story writes itself: Dashing nobleman notices that the poor young milkmaid is hot and somehow has perfect skin despite working directly with livestock; they begin a forbidden affair; maybe she ends up deciding he sucks and she’s better off hanging out with the goats.

This stereotype of the young milkmaid with a heaving bosom, besides the obvious association with milk and breasts, may have come from a 14th-century European fable. “The milkmaid and her pail,” which is sometimes falsely attributed to Aesop, tells the story of a milkmaid who daydreams about how the milk she carries on her head will soon make her wealthy and beloved. Lost in reverie and pride, she loses her balance, and the milk comes crashing down. (The moral: Don’t count your chickens, etc.) Several paintings in the 18th and 19th centuries depict said milkmaid, often as a young, pretty girl in a bucolic setting, capturing the essence of Victorian ideas about womanhood and purity. It’s partly why so many of the images we see of the milkmaid dress trend feature white, willowy models — they’re drawing on the same outdated ideals.

The irony, though, is that milkmaidenhood was likely a highly disgusting profession. The history blog Two Nerdy History Girls, written by two historical fiction authors, found a depiction of a 17th-century milkmaid in Covent Garden in a 1771 novel titled The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, which described the milkmaid thusly:

The milk itself should not pass unanalysed, the produce of faded cabbage leaves and sour draff, lowered with hot water, frothed with bruised snails, carried through the streets in open pails, exposed to foul rinsings discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot, and tobacco-quids from foot-passengers, overflowings from mud-carts, spatterings from coach-wheels, dirt and trash chucked into it by roguish boys for the joke’s sake, the spewing of infants who have slabbered in the tin measure, which is thrown back in that condition among the milk, for the benefit of the next customer; and, finally, the vermin that drops from the rags of the nasty drab that vends this precious mixture, under the respectable denomination of milk-maid.

This is likely not the kind of visual association that Prada or Reformation would prefer you make when shopping for poplin blouses. The look there is “daydreaming pastoral teen,” not “rat-infested street urchin.”

“La Laitière (The Milkmaid)” by Jean-Baptiste Huet, oil on canvas, 1769.
Musée Cognacq-Jay

That we decided to look like hot milkmaids at this very moment in history could theoretically be explained away by “our uncertain times,” in that everyone suddenly dressing as if they live in the Swiss countryside with negligible access to running water is a pushback against smartphones and politics or something. I would believe that!

And maybe it’s sort of the case. But as with most pieces of clothing that are suddenly everywhere, there is something about a milkmaid top that makes the wearer look objectively good. Shoulder-baring tops, for instance, expose a part of the body that doesn’t have the same kind of baggage as, say, women’s stomachs or thighs; huge, clomping sneakers and sandals can have the effect of making the rest of one’s body look smaller by comparison.

Square-neck milkmaid tops with puffy sleeves do both of these things: They highlight your collarbone, while the exaggerated sleeves make your waist appear thinner. I own at least three of these shirts, and that optical effect is not lost on me, even though I’d love to say that the reason I like them is because I have a desire to sell all my possessions and move to Provence, which, who doesn’t?

A campaign image from the brand For Love & Lemons.
For Love & Lemons/Facebook

As with any fashion trend, once it disseminates enough to be noticeable, it’s probably already on its way out. With summer coming to an end and the colder months approaching, the milkmaid top will likely sunset, at which point we’ll have to find new clothing to let us dress away our collective fear of the future. Perhaps we should decide to bring back the Victorian muff instead. Who could possibly check their smartphone with one of those things?

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