The Surprising Tale of the Name "Milady"

Apr 5th 2018

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.

Vintage ad for Milady razor

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.

 

Read More:

10 Unexpected Brand Names that Became Baby Names

The Untold Story Behind One of the World's Top Brand Names

 

Comments

1
By EVie
April 5, 2018 11:40 AM

This is really fascinating, particularly in light of the class associations of the phrase "Milady." It's something that, stereotypically, servants call their mistresses; a person of social status closer to "Milady" would actually enunciate "My Lady." It's a weird paradox -- forcing others into a position of subservience, but at the same time highlighting your own class with a usage that people of the upper classes don't use. Rather different than Beyonce's use of "Sir," which demands respect without the class implications for the speaker. 

(Game of Thrones viewers will recall the scene in which Tywin calls Arya out on pretending to be a servant because she addresses him as My Lord and not M'Lord).

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2
April 6, 2018 9:52 AM

@EVie, that's a great point about the name forcing subservience. Among contemporary names, MyKing might be a comparison (about 20 boys are named MyKing every year).

I wonder how the parents choosing Milady a century ago would have perceived the milady/my lady distinction? My hunch is that most were of the "striver class" seeking greater things for their children, and outside the world of servants and bluebloods.

3
April 9, 2018 11:28 AM

My primary association for "Milady" is the fabulous villainess of The Three Musketeers, Milady DeWinter. She probably had a given name, but she was called just Milady throughout most of the novel, without even her last name. I think in that case it was intended not to suggest only rank, but also her English-ness (since the Musketeers and the author were French), similar to some characters in English works who just go by Madame. I wonder if the marketers were trying to capitalize on that glamorous association? Otherwise, it seems a bit odd to use the very English "Milady" with all the overtly French associations: "In French Ivory and Gold", Décolleté, and even the brand name itself.

4
By EVie
April 11, 2018 12:39 PM

Yes, at least in literature, the address "Milady" seems to be frequently used by French speakers addressing English ladies (e.g. in the Outlander series, Fergus uses it for Claire). It definitely sounds like the marketers were going for a "French maid" feel (which was also a status symbol for the English elites, as opposed to a homegrown English maid. I assume the same attitudes made it across the pond to America). It's like they're trying to convince you the razor is actually a French maid who is going to pamper you.

Laura, I'm quite sure you're right that the people using Milady wouldn't have been aware of the distinction between Milady and My Lady, particularly given that there is no titled aristocracy in the U.S. and the odds of an ordinary American ever meeting a real aristocrat and needing to know the terms of address are very low. That's true even now, much more so back in 1915 when overseas travel was prohibitively expensive for most people... hence the especially exotic feel of the branding for that razor.