The out-skirts of history

An Irishman’s Diary: On a forgotten milestone in the liberation of women

‘As often happens while in the archive, I took a wrong turn somewhere, and instead of nautical hobblers spent an hour – in grim fascination – reading about something called the “Hobble Skirt”.’ Photograph: iStockphoto

‘As often happens while in the archive, I took a wrong turn somewhere, and instead of nautical hobblers spent an hour – in grim fascination – reading about something called the “Hobble Skirt”.’ Photograph: iStockphoto

Sat, Apr 6, 2013, 06:00

An e-mail from the Dublin Dock Workers Preservation Society sent me delving into The Irish Times archive this week to look up the term “hobbler”. It refers to a now-extinct breed of seamen who used to row into Dublin Bay at the first sign of a cargo vessel, competing with rivals to “hook” it and win unloading rights.

But as often happens while in the archive, I took a wrong turn somewhere, and instead of nautical hobblers spent an hour – in grim fascination – reading about something called the “Hobble Skirt”.

One of the unhappier chapters in the history of women’s fashion, the hobble skirt appears to have been inspired by an event from the pioneering days of aviation: a 1908 demonstration flight by the Wright Brothers, during which they were accompanied by an American passenger, Mrs Hart Berg.

To prevent her dress blowing up in the cockpit, Mrs Berg tied a rope around it just above the ankles, with the indirect effect of hobbling herself, like a horse. Unfortunately, a watching French designer liked the look. The rest is travesty.

By the time it first surfaced in this newspaper’s pages – August 1910 – the fashion was raging on both sides of the Atlantic. Its popularity was said to extend “to all classes in America”. And certain entirely predictable consequences were becoming evident.

The same news item that first mentioned the craze was chiefly concerned with a New York woman who, while attempting to descend a stairway in a hobble skirt, had fallen and broken a leg. It was the first of many such accidents.

A week later, the paper carried a despatch from Paris recording two separate mishaps involving the “freak gowns”. First, a Madame Detriere, alighting a taxi on the Boulevard St Germain, broke a leg and suffered severe facial abrasions. Elsewhere, another lady endured the double misfortune of fracturing an ankle while also falling onto a broken bottle.

At Chantilly racecourse in September, an ironically bizarre incident brought a hobbled woman and an unhobbled horse together, with near-tragic results. The horse bolted, injuring several people. But when a wearer of the skirt fell under the animal’s hooves, her hair became entangled and she was dragged, suffering a skull fracture.

Despite such incidents, a haughty Paris fashion writer claimed the accidents there were “naturally in a minor key” compared with the US.

And yet the nature of old European streets – combining cobbles and hobbles, as it were – must have been an aggravating factor this side of the Atlantic. Even the Paris writer noted that, because of the embarrassment of fashion victims, the full extent of injuries caused by the dress would remain unknown.

The craze nevertheless continued. Back in the US, there was a brief furore at the Supreme Court when a “lady lawyer” was refused entry for wearing the skirt, until successfully arguing there were no grounds for such a bar. In Adelaide, Australia, meanwhile, tram-builders agreed to lower their door steps to facilitate hobblers.

But not everyone was co-operative. By 1911, businesses in Atlantic City were moved to ban workers from wearing the skirts. Their motive was purely practical – the design restricted productivity. In Milan, by contrast, a league of concerned husbands and fathers was formed objecting to the skirt on moral grounds.

It remained popular enough in late 1911 that female textile workers in Northampton went on strike to protest over changes in conditions caused by reduced demand for “underskirts”: an indirect result of the figure-hugging fashion.

Accidents appear fewer by then, or maybe they just weren’t reported any more. Slits and pleats were now sometimes added, for safety. But it’s also possible that wearers just learned to adapt. Indeed, there are suggestions that the dress changed the way women walked, which may have been one of the Milan league’s concerns.

In any case, 1912 seems to have been the fashion’s height. The dress was gone by the start of the war. And it could well be that its demise is one of the lesser centenaries we’re marking in 2013. Surely somebody somewhere should lay a wreath.

Getting back to nautical hobblers, the e-mail from the DDWP Society was to mention a commemoration service for deceased dockers, to be held at St Laurence O’Toole Church, Sheriff Street, Dublin, on April 20th.

And moving from hobblers to dodderers, if you find yourself anywhere near Dublin’s river Dodder today, you might consider joining a mass clean-up by concerned residents. The event was supposed to happen last month, until atrocious weather decreed otherwise. The revised day-long operation begins at 10am in Old Bawn and from there will roll in hourly stages towards the sea.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com