According to uniforms.com, domestic servants worked for wealthy families in England and Wales starting around 1850. About 1.5 million people had held this position from 1850 to 1914, although this number includes butlers, cooks and gardeners. A government center in Market Harborough was one of the earliest training centers, and among other things, women were taught to make their own maid uniforms. In the 1920's, clothes manufacturers started making maids uniforms more fashionable and running ads in women's magazines. Some of the outfits were designed for different times of the day, with more formal outfits specifically intended for evening use.
Job titles were developed based on the work performed, from Lady's Maid, Chambermaid, Parlor Maid, Nursery Maid, Kitchen Maid and Scullery Maid. The French Maid's outfit, according to wikipedia, is a modified version of the black and white afternoon uniform, and has evolved to emphasize its erotic elements.
Because having house servants costs money, it's rare to find live-in domestic help outside of wealthy mansions. For this reason, maids, butlers and gardeners are all symbols of wealth easily incorporated into works of fiction, such as novels and video games. This is where we really start to care. In Japan, manga is very common, and concepts like western clothing designs and brick mansions are considered exotic to the Japanese audience. So, when a manga artist wants to tell a story featuring someone rich, they'll often set the story in a mansion, and give the character a large staff of French maids. From here, it's a short step to video games where the player tries to seduce all of the female characters, including the maids. Thus, maid characters have become highly visible in various media in Japan.
("Hello Kitty moe-caramel", strawberry flavor)
Why Maid Cafes?
Why not? There are theme restaurants all over the world, and many themes are chosen specifically to make the restaurant stand out from the competition. In a country where maids are recognized as being the ones that serve the meals in the homes of the rich, it's little wonder that someone would want to try using the same idea within a restaurant setting.
Additionally, there's a tradition in Japan for women to wait on men, specifically within bar settings. Gesha are trained not only to play instruments and dance gracefully, but to also pour sake and listen attentively to the customers. Maids are just an updated form of gesha.
In the mid-1940's, Akihabara (again, according to wikipedia) had a series of small electronics shops open up to support the students at the nearby technical school. Over time, Akihabara became a storage district for consumer electronics, and then an outlet for customers wanting to buy those electronics. But, it wasn't until the advent of laser disks that stores started selling anime, because if customers were there to get the players, it was reasonable that they'd want disks at the same time. Then, when video game consoles came out, stores sold the games as well. This is why today Akihabara is one of the biggest outlets for anime and video games in Tokyo. (Other districts around Tokyo concentrate on sporting goods, musical instruments, used books, fashion and so on.)
What is Akihabara?
Technically speaking, Akihabara is a shopping district about 6 blocks square surrounding the Akihabara train station on the JR Yamanote line. While there are some apartments, businesses, office complexes and even two major temples, the majority of the buildings here house electronics shops and other forms of entertainment. Generally, this description fits all of Tokyo, since the entire city is so over-developed, and the major street, Yasukuni Dori, which runs from Shinjuku all the way through Akihabara and into Chiba, is lined with shops and office buildings. It's like Tokyo is one huge store. But, the greatest concentration of video game, anime and manga shops is in Akihabara itself. And in "geek central", that's where you find the "otaku".
Why the "Otaku" digs?
"Otaku" started out with the basic meaning of "a fan of anime or manga", then turned darker in the 1990's. More recently, otaku has been reverting to it's earlier form of "anime and manga fanboy", but the news media, especially the English newspapers in Japan, have continued to treat "otaku" as an insult. Writers like Peter Galbraith, working for the Japan Times and Metropolis, prefer to treat manga fans as "geeks" and "nerds". It's a lazy shorthand used by lazy writers.
Because Akihabara has so many video game and manga shops in one place, writers like Galbraith insist on using the phrases "otaku heaven" and "geek central". Yes, there are fan boys here, but it's a small percentage of the total population, and most people still come here to buy consumer and home electronics. But you can't tell the news media that.
Well, because the maid character type had become so common in anime, manga and video games, it was only a matter of time that someone opened up a real cafe that matched the fictional places. And, since maids were derived from manga and anime, that such a cafe would be in a place with the highest concentration of manga and anime fans. That place of course is Akihabara. One tourist map (current as of June, 2009), lists over 30 maid cafes, and even a maid eyeglass store. Customers like being treated well, and the store staff treat this as a chance to dress up and have fun.
In the beginning...
Cure Maid Cafe opened in March, 2001, making it the first official maid cafe in Akihabara. While its initial customer base was male otaku, there's now a more general clientele that includes salary workers and office women. Depending on the cafe, upwards of 50% of the customers at any given time may be female. The idea that maid cafes only attract no-life fan-boy geeks is a myth perpetuated by the media. However, maid cafes generally are more expensive than regular food shops, so customers go principally to be greeted by, and to look at, the maids. No duh...
Akihabara isn't the only manga/anime/video game district in and around Tokyo. Nakano Broadway, a department store complex in Nakano (a stop on the Chuu-ou train line leading west from Shinjuku) has many shops in one building selling used manga, collector toys, animation artwork and cosplay outfits. It's a more relaxed, countrified version of Akihabara. And Ikebukuro, a station on the Yamanote line, 2 miles north of Shinjuku, is the home of many stores selling used amateur manga (doujinshi), and goods aimed at female fans.
Nakano really doesn't have enough space to hold many maid cafes, but Ikebukuro does. Ikebukuro's cafes cater to a female customer base by having butler, "little brother" and "dan-sou" (cross-dressing) themes. The dan-sou cafes seem to be influenced by Takarazuka, the all-women theater group. And, at least one dan-sou cafe has opened in Akihabara, recently.
Coming back to the maid uniforms
While the idea of dressing up as maids or butlers and acting subserviently might seem offensive in western countries, this is actually part of the larger culture in Japan. Japan is a homogeneous country, and people are raised to be sensitive to how their behavior affects the rest of the group. In this way, children grow up trying to fit in with their group, wearing uniforms in school and at work. If you go into a bank, everyone's wearing business suits and white, starched office blouses. Naturally you have McDonald's with its uniform as well. Maid dresses are just another kind of uniform, but they're fancier and more tongue-in-cheek.
As for subservient... There was an industry report issued in 2008 regarding the tourist value of some roadside towns in southwestern Japan, and one complaint that had been raised in it was that the employees in the tourist traps didn't greet customers cheerfully and wholeheartedly. That they lacked training in how to behave. This means that it's not normal for the Japanese kitchen staff at a sushi restaurant to yell out "irasshaimasu!" when you walk in the door. That cheerful welcoming cry that you find in every single store has to be taught. So, this means that the behavior at a maid cafe is no different than at a sushi restaurant - staff everywhere have to go through similar training to bow and scrape before the customer. It's just more open and above-board at a maid cafe.
Maids are cute, as are some of the butlers. Maid and butler cafes are designed to make you feel like you're entering your mansion at the end of a long day. If you don't approve of this sensation, that's cool. But, maid cafes are meant to be fun, and if you don't mind spending a couple extra dollars for the food and drinks along the way, then by all means go to a maid or butler cafe and have fun.