Biographers often point to Katharine Wright as the
inspiration for the "hobble skirt" that was briefly popular around 1910-1911.
Wilbur Wright tied a length of twine around Katharine's skirts to keep them from
blowing back during her flights in Europe, and this supposedly began the
fashion. It's a plausible story, but there is no truth to it.
Left, Wilbur ties a
string around Katharine's dress prior to flight; right, the hobble skirt. The
one did not beget the other.
Tight skirts with small-circumference hems had been
in and out of fashion in Europe since the 1880s, long before the Wrights arrived
with their airplane. Late Victorian designers called attention to the posteriors
of women by hiding them beneath an erotic "bustle," then emphasized the hips and
legs with clinging skirts. Some of these designs were inspired by a growing
fascination with the orient. Japan had recently been opened to trade with the
world at large by the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854. Since then, the kimono and
the "gheisha" look had become recurring themes in Western women's wear.
This "orientalism," as the design movement was
called, got a huge boost in France from the Paris-based dance troupe
Ballet Russes under the direction of
Sergei Diaghilev. In 1910, they produced a wildly successful musical show called
Scheherazade which featured orient-inspired costumes. These costumes had
an enormous effect on French fashion.
When Katharine visited Europe in 1909, the most
influential fashion designer was Paul Poiret, a French couturier. Poiret's
designs were often exotic, drawing on Egyptian and oriental motifs. The
popularity of Scheherazade gave new impulse to Poiret's orientalism and
in 1910 he
introduced a tight-fitting dress with a restrictive hem that forced the wearer
to take dainty geisha-like steps. This became known as the hobble skirt and it
remained an object of fashion – and ridicule – for several
years thereafter. Poiret never claimed to have been inspired by Katharine or any
other aviatrix; by his own telling his purpose was simply to emphasize the
Katharine's connection to the hobble
skirt seems to have begun after an article appeared in the New York Times in
1910, "The Hobble is the Latest Freak in Women's Fashion." The author did not
mention Katharine but referred to an "aviation skirt" worn by Mme. Alice
Bleriot, the wife of Louis Bleriot who had flown across the English Channel in
1909. It was sloppy journalism; there was no "aviation skirt" nor was Mme.
Bleriot known to fly with her husband. But the article reflected on other women
who flew, one of the most popular being Katharine Wright.
The Origin of the Hobble Skirt