The Surprising Tale of the Name "Milady"
Here at BabyNameWizard.com, we leave no stone unturned in our investigation of names and culture. In that spirit, we present a new first: a tale of baby names and body hair.
The name in today's spotlight is the playfully regal confection Milady. Some may associate the term "milady" with the cynical seduction techniques of "The Pickup Artist" a decade ago. Others may hear it as kin to new exalted name inventions like Myangel, LaKing and SirCharles. But Milady first became an American baby name over a century ago, thanks to the introduction of . . . sleeveless dresses.
In the Victorian era, clothing reliably covered women's limbs. As the 20th Century began to ease strictures in dress and deportment, feminine armpits started to see the light of day. Culturally speaking, women's bodily features tend to be divided into two categories. There are the concealed parts, which are treated as objects of titillation, and the revealed parts, which are treated as objects of scrutiny and self-doubt. When the female armpit began its shift from concealed to revealed, marketers rushed in to speed the transition. Self-doubt, after all, is a major sales opportunity.
First to the party was the legendary King C. Gillette, inventor of the safety razor. Gillette saw a chance to double his market by introducing shaving—which is to say, the perceived need for shaving—to women. In 1915, he offered the first razor marketed specifically for the denuding of the female armpit (which Gillette's ads referred to by the then-new euphemism "underarm.") The marketing campaign presented this new ladies' razor as a class marker, an emblem of elegance. That point was underscored by its design in gold plate and ivory, and its name: the Milady Décolleté.
That $5 price point translates to $122 today. Note how the ad presents the product name as if announcing a guest at a ball: "Milady Décolleté Gillette." Note, too, how the text smoothly alternates between using "Milady" to refer to the razor and to its genteel owner. They were selling a brand image as much as a product.
The success of Gillette's campaign in hitting its emotional target can be seen in an unintended effect, on baby names. As of 1915, Milady was unknown as a personal name. After an ad campaign that pitched the sophistication of Milady Décolleté in every ladies' magazine, dozens of American girls were named Milady.
The baby name was clearly inspired by the brand. That isn't quite the same, though, as saying that the babies were "named after" a razor. Similarly, a 21st-century girl called Lexus isn't necessarily named after a car. Luxury brand names and advertising campaigns are designed to conjure a dream of the good life. Generation after generation, that's a dream expectant parents share for their kids. Milady was a harbinger of a century of luxury brand marketing, and a century of baby names to match.