Hundred-Year-Old Fashion Fad: The Hobble Skirt

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In 1914, the hobble skirt was all the rage. To eyes used to seeing women's bodies enveloped in yards of fabric, these skirts were a shocking reminder that women had ankles, legs, and derrières.

While rumors surround the moment when women's skirts went from heavy and billowing to light and tight—even the Wright Brothers claimed they came up with the fashion when they tied a string around an early passenger's flapping skirt—nobody knows for sure who invented this trend. The skirt's popularity can be traced to Paul Poiret's 1908 designs for select French clients, which featured dresses designed to be worn without petticoats or corsets. "Yes, I freed the bust," he wrote, "but I shackled the legs."

What hobble skirts' wearers gained in good looks, they sacrificed in mobility. As mass-produced copies of Poiret's new narrow, leg-emphasizing skirts hit American streets, women no longer strode or glided. Instead, they took tiny, mincing steps, wiggling their way into a full-blown fashion scandal.

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Though most women still wore corsets, they were more than glad to trade in their heavy petticoats (which could weigh up to 30 pounds) for this fresh new look. But the petticoat wouldn't go down without a fight. Public figures derided the new fashion and cartoonists lampooned the struggles of women to cross streets and climb into taxis. The New York Times played the guilt card with a huge spread on the economic impact of a world without petticoats—a decline in the textile industry, a rise in the cost of living, and lower wages resulting in a downright depression: "Think of that! Think of 10,000 people turned away from their possible means of livelihood, 10,000 families, perhaps, starving, just because women persist in following an ungraceful and immodest freak of fashion!"

By throwing away a garment long associated with chastity, warmth, and cleanliness, women were making the ultimate fashion statement. Armed with more leisure, more freedom, better educations, and better prospects than ever before, women were ready to do—and wear—what they pleased. They were also, unwittingly, giving ammunition to those who would argue against the growing calls for women's rights. A Chicago minister predicted that the Lord would smite women who wore the skirts. And an unnamed New York Times contributor mocked the fashion outright: "If women want to run for Governor, they ought to be able to run for a car....If they want to be legally free they shouldn't be sartorially shackled. But with the lack of logic that the sex can be counted on to display they have chosen a trammelled figure and shackled ankles when they need most to have them free in the strenuous race for equality with the trousered sex." What's next, pants for women?

Although hobble skirts ruffled feathers and even changed mass transit (the entrances to street cars and trains were dropped to accommodate tight-skirted passengers), their reign didn't last long. The outbreak of World War I brought fabric restrictions and reduced manpower to Paris. In France and America alike, the hobble skirt didn't seem to fit a new atmosphere of hard work, strict economy, and serious times. The hobble skirt was gradually discarded...but not before it killed off the petticoat for good.

References: 'As Seen in Vogue: A Century of American Fashion in Advertising,' by Daniel Delis Hill (Texas Tech University Press, 2007); 'Los Angeles Railway Yellow Cars,' by Jim Walker (Arcadia Publishing, 2007); 'America in the Age of the Titans: The Progressive Era and World War I,' by Sean Dennis Cashman (NYU Press, 1998); The New York Times, "THE HOBBLE" IS THE LATEST FREAK IN WOMAN'S FASHIONS, June 12, 1910 and WOMEN'S NARROW SKIRTS PLAY HOB WITH TEXTILE INDUSTRY, January 28, 1912; The Pittsburgh Press, Advantages and Disadvantages of the Hobble Skirt, July 15, 1910; The Nashua Telegraph, Scores Hobble Skirt, December 13,1910; Petticoats and Frock Coats: Revolution and Victorian-Age Fashions from the 1770s to the 1860s, by Cynthia Overbeck Bix, (Twenty-First Century Books, 2001)