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The hobble skirt, working women, and 'summer girls'

Published August 20. 2011 09:03AM

With the automobile chugging through the countryside and the streets of downtown America, and air travel beginning to take flight, we were fast becoming a more mobile society in 1911.

These vast changes influenced every segment of society including fashion. The hobble skirt, which was cut so narrow at the ankles that it hindered walking, was the brainchild of French clothing designer Paul Poiret. Because they were so narrow at the hem, it "hobbled" the wearer, thus the name.

One of Poiret's inspirations was said to be Mrs. Hart Berg, the first American woman to join the Wright Brothers, air pioneers who had rock-star-like status in American society at the time. To keep her skirts from flying out of control while airborne, Berg tied a rope around them below the knees. This technique was copied soon after by Katherine Wright, sister of the famous Wright brother tandem.

The hobble skirt fashion did not help the economy. In fact, the Tamaqua Courier reported that the fashion trend was costing jobs.

"Thousands of mill girls throughout the country have been cut by the hobble skirt fashion," one writer editorialized on July 26, 1911. "It does not take as much material to produce the garment as formerly. Consequently, many mills making women's dress goods have had to run on short time."

He went on to state that the hobble skirt fashion, coupled with the number of workers replaced by "labor-saving machinery," were having a crippling effect on the female work force. He said that there were other job opportunities for women, but there was "suffering among the people thrown out of work" in the clothing factories.

Transitioning to another job, however, often meant traveling a farther distance to one's new workplace. In many cases, retraining was required and the work schedules were less flexible.

Often, the women found they were much better off in their former jobs in the fabric workplace. That was before the factory was forced to re-tool in order to satisfy the new fashion trends.

The Courier had long been a strong proponent of the independent woman. In an opinion in the July 18, 1910, issue, a writer stated that women, while remaining the "ministering angel of the household," should get away from the "clinging vine idea" and "cultivate their minds until they possessed an actual earning capacity."

"Today you find her on every side, shrewd and careful, and at all times ready to measure steel with men," he wrote of the new woman worker. "She keeps well booked on current events and the men whose company she craves are the men who are doing big things in life. They do not look at women as an interloper. In fact they admire her for her sagacity and for the quick intuition that she utilizes to an advantage in the business in which she may be engaged."

He wondered why any woman, given her desire for greater independence and the pursuit for something more gainful, would resort to "drinking tea in parlors and lawns and indulging in small talk."

"An idle, purposeless life is certainly not a happy life," he wrote. "Work is the fresh air of the soul. It gives an added interest and a zest to life."

He said one noted scientist blamed the "melancholia" among women on the fact that they "have nothing with which to occupy themselves and very naturally sink into despondency."

"That women should strive for a certain amount of independence is natural," he said. "This world is crowded with uncertainties. The happy and contented matron of today may be the penniless widow of tomorrow. If she possesses an earning capacity, she may face the world in sorrow, but certainly not in fear."

In August 1911, a Courier writer did a tongue-in-cheek column titled "The Summer Girl." He explained how single women were being drawn to hotel lobbies in the hopes of finding a wealthy husband. One tool these gold diggers relied on heavily for marriage prospects was the hotel register.

"At some carefully chosen moment, she descends and carefully inspects the hotel register," the writer explained. "If you come from a place of less than 100,000 inhabitants there is a prima fascia case against you. This is not as convincing evidence as it was 10 years ago because it is slowly becoming good form to live in the country. But the number of people from small towns who find social prestige increased by registering from the nearest big city instead of from their own country home is still quite considerable."

The writer said that a summer girl is always on the lookout for that prize catch.

"You can sit just as close to the summer girl as ever in the hammock provided that you are properly introduced, that you know the correct people and have an air of familiarity with the ways of the Smart Set," he said. "But beware of the people whose acquaintance you seek on the first day of your stay, for it is examination day for you in the eyes of the Summer Girl."

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