Originally from the French ‘embouteilleur’, or bottler, a butler was simply trusted to serve drinks to his master—which in Medieval times might have meant ensuring the wine wasn’t poisoned. Later the position became much more prestigious as head of the household staff—he managed the male servants while a housekeeper managed the female maids—
and he was often in charge of the wine cellar.
As far back as the 1500s, a valet was a gentleman’s gentleman, or a man’s servant who reported to the butler. The valet maintained a gentleman’s wardrobe, helped him get dressed, packed his steamer trunk—whatever he required to maintain his position in society.
In smaller households, a butler performed some of these duties—which may be how the terms became interchangeable.
Today’s valet is most often an attendant who parks a car. But a clothes valet still refers to a piece of small furniture that manages a wardrobe since it’s equipped with a hanger for a suit jacket, pants, tie, belt, a drawer or shelf for cuff links, wallet, rings—even a shoe rest.
When the norm was a large household headed by a butler with a valet on staff, a gentleman’s wardrobe typically consisted of bespoke suits, heavily starched collars and precious pocket watches. Today, the trine bench-valet speaks to our more casual times—with an arm to hang a shirt or jacket so it won’t get wrinkled, and a seat to comfortably slip on a pair of Toms.