In fashion, every action precedes a reaction. Those of a certain age will recall, for example, how the miniskirt was followed immediately by the maxi-skirt.
Such whiplash progressions aren’t new at all. Constantly attuned to the whims of Paris and New York, Cincinnati’s fashionistas have long adopted the latest styles as soon as they walked off the runway. Back in 1910, that resulted in a sort of boomerang maneuver as women adopted first a tightly wrapped and inhibiting style and then a scandalously free-flowing design.
The hobble skirt came first. Distinguished by a close-fitting band below the knee, the style caught on despite interfering with normal walking, because it showed off curvaceous figures. This daring emphasis on the feminine body naturally offended those who would best be advised not to wear such a style. The Cincinnati Post [September 10, 1910] quoted a “prominent Fourth-St. merchant, just back from Paris,” who recognized the objection:
“The old maids were not pleased. They have a natural antipathy to the hobble skirt or any other style that gives away the dark secret that the human form is a reality.”
Beyond emphasizing women’s bodies, the hobble skirt introduced another layer of turpitude by dispensing with bulky Victorian underthings like corsets, girdles, and furbelows. The Enquirer [August 11, 1910] spilled the beans:
“Paris dressmakers claim that ordinary undergarments should not be worn with the gown that is designed to have a ‘clinging’ effect, and are advocating Italian silk underwear as admirably adapted for the purpose.”
Cartoons highlighted the propensity of hobble-skirted women to trip while walking. The skirts prohibited tying one’s own shoelaces and made climbing onto streetcars a real ordeal. In fact, Cincinnati’s traction company tried to blame sluggish service on delays caused by hobble-skirted riders taking forever to board. Local wags vied to concoct the funniest gibe. Here is a columnist for The Post [June 16, 1910]:
“Hobble Skirt—Are you hep? It’s the proper slang moniker for the new effect in ladies’ gowns, where the skirt is about as big around at the bottom as one leg of a fat man’s pants, and the wearer walks like an octogenarian with sore feet.”
Inevitably, religious authorities stuck their noses into the fashion scene. The Enquirer rather gleefully reported that prelates in Italy and France denied entrance to their churches by women flaunting this latest fashion.
The Post [September 13, 1910] noted that there was nothing new about the hobble skirt since the mummy of an Egyptian princess recently acquired by the Cincinnati Art Museum, Hathor Neb Tau, was clad in garments remarkably similar to the latest style.
By December 1910, the fad was apparently over. Hugo Stein, a Cincinnati tailor who chaired the Board of Styles for the National Cloak, Suit and Skirtmakers’ Association, announced to the group’s national convention in Chicago that “practical” styles would predominate for the next season.
Apparently, “practical” meant the harem skirt. Where the hobble skirt hugged a woman’s body to emphasize her figure, the harem skirt unleashed a woman’s ability to move. The Post [March 21, 1911] spotted the first harem skirt in Cincinnati, brazenly flounced by a New York model imported to introduce the new style.
“It’s a skirt parted in the middle at the bottom and covering a pair of loose pantaloons that run down to the ankles, underneath.”
Those pantaloons sent the guardians of morality into apoplexy. At the time, women could be arrested—and frequently were—for wearing trousers. Again, churches led the charge. The Post [February 24, 1911] reported Pope Pius X’s diatribe against harem skirts “because it is calculated to diminish the wearer’s self-respect and to abolish sex distinctions.”
On the other hand, doctors—women doctors, that is—declared harem skirts a healthy alternative to conventional dresses by allowing “perfect freedom of movement” and escape from “the collection of germs, dust and mud that is bound to gather along the bottom of an ordinary skirt.”
While the blue-noses proclaimed the moral failure of the harem skirt, The Post [April 20, 1911] noted a curious discrepancy:
“Speaking of harem skirts, it is rather significant that women of Mrs. Warren’s profession never dress in a mannish way.”
Mrs. Warren, of course, was the title character of George Bernard Shaw’s infamous play about prostitution.
Nevertheless, while hobble skirts elicited mostly chuckles from male observers, harem skirts brought out the skirt chasers. The Enquirer [March 14, 1911] reported the sensation caused by an adventurous spirit clad in a harem skirt on Pullan Avenue in Northside:
“The news flew like wildfire and soon a crowd of 500 or more, mostly of the genus homo, followed the daring young woman. When the throng came close those in the foremost ranks seemed to be thrilled by something those in the rear did not see, for the girl threw back her cloak and stood exposed in the aggressively unique construction.”
In the excitement, the fashion pioneer made her escape. The newspaper reported that a gentleman of some years sat on his porch all day hoping for a repeat performance and caught a cold in the March air.
Within a year, the harem skirt was pronounced passé. Despite that proclamation—and an earlier dictum regarding hobble skirts—both styles remained popular into the 1920s, providing women with a choice. Whether ladies elected to tighten up or loosen up, it was their freedom that was the most important trend.