Victorian Strangeness: The bizarre tale of the ladies who limped

By Magazine Monitor
A collection of cultural artefacts

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Victorian ladies illustration - late 1850sImage source, ALAMY

With the honourable exception of Lady Gaga's frock of meat, it was the most thunderingly daft episode in the entire history of fashion, says author Jeremy Clay.

In the well-heeled streets of London, something peculiar was afoot. In Edinburgh too, things were askew.

Before long, the phenomenon had worked its way across the land, passed from town to town like a contagion, leaving hobbling knots of sufferers wherever it went.

But in an age of ailments, from potter's rot to chimney sweep's scrotum, there were no physical grounds for the spreading infirmity. It preyed on the young, the capricious, the suggestible and the status-obsessed. Or, to put it another way, the fashionable.

They called it the Alexandra Limp and it was quite possibly the only fad to be born in a sick bed.

Alexandra of Denmark was the bride of the Prince of Wales, and a 19th Century fashion icon. The clothes she wore were copied as well. The chokers she wore to conceal a scar on her neck were copied. And when a bout of rheumatic fever left her with a pronounced limp… Well, that was copied too.

In the well-do-do hotspots of Britain, toadying women began clumping about in a style that suggested they'd recently stood barefoot on discarded Lego.

At first, it was a DIY affair. Women would simply grab odd shoes to help them totter effectively. But canny shopkeepers soon realised there was a pretty penny to be made from what otherwise would be retail's most unshiftable line - wildly mismatched footwear, with one high heel, and one low.

What did ordinary people make of it all? Not a great deal, if this 1869 report from the North British Mail is anything to go by. "A monstrosity has made itself visible among the female promenaders in Princes Street," it seethed. "It is as painful as it is idiotic and ludicrous.

"Taking my customary walk the other day, observant of men, women and things, I met three ladies. They were all three young, all three good-looking, and all three lame! At least, such was my impression, seeing as they all carried handsome sticks and limped; but, on looking back, as everyone else did, I could discover no reason why they should do so.

"Indeed, one decent woman expressed her pity in an audible 'Puir things!' as she passed, but I was enlightened by hearing a pretty girl explain to her companion, 'Why that's the Alexandra limp! How ugly!'"

Image source, Science Photo Library
Image caption,
Alexandra of Denmark was a trend-setter in the 1860s

The Dundee Courier and Argus was no less contemptuous. "Some remarkably foolish things have been done in imitation of royalty," the paper tutted, "but this is an act which involves a spice of wickedness as well as of folly.

"There must be a line at which even fashionable folly may be expected to stop short," it said, and this line ought to be drawn "at the caricaturing of human infirmity".

And then, as is the way of these things, fashion moved on. The game was probably already up by the time a race-horse was given the deeply unpromising name of Alexandra Limp.

"A fashion journal announces that the Alexandra limp is to be discontinued forthwith," reported the Western Daily Press. Cue great sighs of relief, which will have lasted right until the reader reached the following sentence: "The skirt of the season, we are informed, is to cling closely round the feet, in consequence whereof ladies will be obliged to walk as if their feet were tied together."

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