The Dangers of Hobble Skirts, 1910
Did you see the warning about skinny jeans the other day? There were news reports all over the place about it, with alerts on the dangers of “compartment syndrome” and that skinny jeans could be responsible for seriously damaging muscles and nerves in your legs. However, this is quite a good example of scientific stories being reported misleadingly in the popular press, as this top notch slapdown on the NHS Choices website makes clear – calling it “shameless clickbaiting” based on one (one!) case, which was seen in Australia.
NHS Choices says, excellently: “Many news sources covered this story. We suspect that this was because it gave them an excuse to carry photos of skinny-jean-wearing celebrities such as the Duchess of Cambridge. Call us cynical, but we doubt a case report involving anoraks or thermal underwear would generate the same level of coverage.”
Still, it’s not the first time that fashion has been held accountable for health hazards. I’ve previously looked at the mind-boggling mid-Victorian trend of walking with your back bent forward, known as the “Grecian Bend”. And today I’m going to look at the hullabaloo around the hobble skirt. The hobble skirt was a widely-ridiculed, yet very popular, fashion of the Edwardian, pre-First World War years – and really the War was pretty much responsible for ending the trend. It consisted of a long skirt, tied or narrowed tightly at some point from the knee down, and which resulted in the wearer having to “hobble” along while wearing it. I love the origin of this fashion – it is likely to have resulted from the latest technological development, the aeroplane. Designer Paul Poiret is credited for its invention, but he was probably influenced by Mrs. Hart O. Berg, who took a flight with Wilbur Wright in 1908, becoming the first American woman to fly as a passenger in a plane. In order to prevent her skirt billowing up in the air she tied a rope around it, which she kept on as she rather elegantly walked away afterwards.
A New Jersey judge in 1910 tried to define what the hobble skirt was, exactly. He called it “a pair of trousers with one leg”. This was an aside in a riotous-sounding trial of a schoolboy, charged with “smashing the straw hat of an elderly gentleman.” The defence for his actions was that “the season for straw hats had closed and summer headgear should not be worn in October.” To which the judge remarked that “public opinion might mould fashion, but not to the extent of employing violence. Public opinion might prescribe a hobble skirt for men, and then I suppose we should have to wear it. The hobble skirt would certainly look better on men than on women. It really is a pair of trousers with one leg.”
It caught on. It became the big new thing with women, seemingly confusing men in the process. In order to deal with this strange new fashion, widespread dismissal and scaremongering was the order of the day. Illinois and Texas even considered banning the hobble skirt in 1911, along with the “harem” skirt, which were long bloomers worn underneath.
There were pros and cons to the hobble. On the downside, the restricted movement could cause accidents. This article rather prematurely declares the hobble skirt dead in 1910, due to a series of accidents on the part of the wearers:
And, in fact, trying to get over a stile in a hobble skirt apparently resulted in the sad death of Mrs Ethel Lindley in 1912. She slipped, broke her ankle and with the bone protruding through the skin, she still managed to walk ten yards towards a farm, but sadly she died shortly afterwards from septic poisoning and shock.
The implications of the fashion included the fact that less fabric was used in its manufacture, and there was a “crisis of yardage” – the earlier fashions involved dresses made from 14 to 19 yards of silk, whereas the new styles only took between 4 and 7 yards, with underskirts becoming almost obsolete and demand for petticoats much reduced.
The fall in the demand for underskirts also had this result – 1200 clothes factory girls in Northampton went on strike in 1911 as their sewing services were not so much needed and they were given other work, which they said did not allow them to earn a living wage.
Even the Pope got involved – the hobble skirt and cleavage-revealing dresses were condemned as “scandalous and corrupting”.
But, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. “Medical men approve of women wearing tight skirts” says this headline, rather cheekily. The Chicago Medical Society decided they were “hygienic, artistic and comfortable, and that they correct bad walking.” Dr Arthur Reynolds explained that “American women think it stylish and pretty to turn their feet out at right angles while walking,” which was hard to do in a hobble skirt, and sounds painful and much more ridiculous than the tight skirt. Full skirts were also liable to become “germ-laden”.
Straight out of Monty Python, a joke about a hobble skirt “almost caused the death” of a Connecticut Judge in 1910. He saw his daughter wearing one and wisecracked that “a woman in a hobble is like a giraffe in a barrel.” He found his joke so funny that he couldn’t stop laughing, which developed into a ten-day bout of violent hiccups that apparently were life-threatening until “specialists…succeeded in reducing them to infrequent periods”. Lots of “self-appointed hiccough experts” tried to ease the judge’s suffering. I particularly like the bizarre advice of “sleeping on the bedroom door with the feet on the window sill.”
And “hobble skirt races” were held as a novelty instead of sack races:
The reasons for its demise are discussed in this look back at the hobble skirt from the viewpoint of 1940. A suggestion had been made that fashion should be “standardised” for the duration of the Second World War, and this article reflects that had this been the case with the First World War, women might have remained wearing their hobble skirts much longer. As it was, war work meant that women’s fashions had to be practical above everything else – “Wider skirts, shorter skirts and shorter hair all came about through women’s need for greater freedom.” This was probably the biggest ever change to women’s position in society – “Women had become workers: they continued to work in the years which followed. If fashion had not been permitted to keep pace they would have had to shuffle instead of stride.”