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September 12, 2023

The Hobble Skirt, Hundred-Year-Old Fashion Fad

A hobble skirt was a skirt with a narrow enough hem to significantly impede the wearer’s stride. It was called a “hobble skirt” because it seemed to hobble any woman as she walked. Hobble skirts were a short-lived fashion trend that peaked between 1908 and 1914.

The hobble skirt may have been inspired by the Japanese kimono and by one of the first women to fly in an airplane. At a 1908 Wright Brothers demonstration in Le Mans, France, Mrs. Edith Ogilby Berg asked for a ride and became the first American woman to fly as a passenger in an airplane, soaring for two minutes and seven seconds. She tie d a rope securely around her skirt at her ankles to keep it from blowing in the wind during the flight. According to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, a French fashion designer was inspired by the way Mrs. Berg walked away from the aircraft with her skirt still tied and created the hobble skirt based on her ingenuity.

The French fashion designer in the Berg story might have been Paul Poiret who claimed credit for the hobble skirt, but it is not clear whether the skirt was his invention or not. Skirts had been rapidly narrowing since the mid-1900s. Slim skirts were economical because they used less fabric. The hobble skirt became popular just as women were becoming more physically active.

Hobble skirts inspired hundreds of cartoons and comic postcards. One series of comic cards called it the “speed-limit skirt.” There were several reports of women competing in hobble-skirt races as a joke.

Boarding a streetcar in a hobble skirt was difficult. In 1912, the New York Street Railway ran hobble-skirt cars with no step up. Los Angeles introduced similar streetcars in 1913.

Hobble skirts were directly responsible for several deaths. In 1910, a hobble-skirt-wearing woman was killed by a loose horse at a racetrack outside Paris. A year later, eighteen-year-old Ida Goyette stumbled on an Erie Canal bridge while wearing a hobble skirt, fell over the railing, and drowned.

To prevent women from splitting their skirts, some women wore a fetter or tied their legs together at the knee. Some designers made alterations to the hobble skirt to allow for greater movement. Jeanne Paquin concealed pleats in her hobble skirts while other designers such as Lucile offered slit or wrap skirts.

The trend began to decline in popularity at the beginning of World War I, as the skirt’s limited mobility did not suit the wartime atmosphere.


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