Poiret’s Hobble Skirt Becomes the Rage

Fashion designer Paul Poiret altered the way women dressed when he eliminated the corset, but he also restricted their freedom of movement with his hobble skirt.

Summary of Event

Paul Poiret was employed as a designer at the House of Worth, a highly respected French fashion house, during the last decade of the nineteenth century. As a result of a dispute, Poiret resigned his position there and established his own house of design on September 1, 1903. His creativity and business acumen soon combined to make him one of France’s most successful couturiers. From 1904 to 1914, Poiret’s fashion and design innovations had pronounced effects on the way women dressed. He was the most significant of early twentieth century French designers, and his success demonstrated that astute business practices and fashion are not incompatible. Fashion design;hobble skirt
Hobble skirt
Fashion designers;Paul Poiret[Poiret]
[kw]Poiret’s Hobble Skirt Becomes the Rage (Spring, 1910)[Poirets Hobble Skirt Becomes the Rage (Spring, 1910)]
[kw]Hobble Skirt Becomes the Rage, Poiret’s (Spring, 1910)
[kw]Skirt Becomes the Rage, Poiret’s Hobble (Spring, 1910)
Fashion design;hobble skirt
Hobble skirt
Fashion designers;Paul Poiret[Poiret]
[g]France;Spring, 1910: Poiret’s Hobble Skirt Becomes the Rage[02600]
[c]Fashion and design;Spring, 1910: Poiret’s Hobble Skirt Becomes the Rage[02600]
Poiret, Paul
Bakst, Léon
Dufy, Raoul

Poiret first gained attention for his determination to dress women in a natural manner, according to the way they were constructed by nature. He rejected the use of the restrictive corset worn by most women, which produced a form that emphasized the hips and bosom and prevented women from assuming a natural posture. Fashion design;undergarments He replaced the corset with a girdle Girdles and a brassiere, Brassieres an item of apparel that was first advertised in 1907. The brassiere designed by Poiret was a modification of the bust bodice, or “improver,” of the late nineteenth century.

Poiret also set aside the stiff crinoline petticoat, which often called for the use of fifteen or more yards of fabric and featured a circumference of six or even seven yards. He introduced a plainer undergarment made of crepe de chine or linen that became known as a “slip.” The interest group that most vigorously protested the substitution of the slip for the petticoat was the silk industry, the members of which blamed Poiret for the loss of business and profits.

In his search for newness, Poiret set aside the pale, diluted colors of the Edwardian period and, like the Fauve painters, employed vibrant and pure color; he referred to his fabrics as “cloths of fire and joy.” He generously utilized orange, yellow, and red in his designs, and other vivid colors, such as emerald green, cerise, vermillion, royal blue, and purple, also became identified with his work. Often, too, he imposed his Fauvist colors on a black background. He drew on the creative skills of artists such as Raoul Dufy and Erté to provide him with color designs, which he then had imprinted on fabric.

For evening wear, Poiret used exquisite fabrics such as silver and gold lamés interwoven with silk, damask, brocade, and brocatelle. Gold and silver threads and beads were added as decorative features. His search for the right fabrics to execute his creations was in part responsible for the renewal of the French textile industry and the revitalization of the art of applied design. Other Poiret fashion statements were coils of flashing pearls worn under stoles of white fox, cockades of multicolored feathers, and stylish turbans. Furthermore, he was the first couturier to develop and market a line of perfumes, which he called Rosine, after his oldest daughter. Success led him to add other items to the Rosine line, including colognes, toilet waters, soaps, powders, lotions, creams, and cosmetics.

Historians have noted that Poiret drew on the ideas of designers Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois of the Ballets Russes for inspiration. Poiret, however, always contended that he employed Asian influences in design and that he had used pure and vibrant color before the Russian ballet was accepted in Paris by 1909 and even before the Fauve artists made their mark on the world of painting in 1905.

It seems somewhat contradictory that Poiret, the creator of the natural-form silhouette of the modern woman, was also responsible for the hobble skirt, which arrested the freedom of movement he had pioneered. The hobble skirt, however, is chiefly responsible for keeping Poiret’s name alive across the pages of modern fashion history. This skirt was a garment with a high waistline, sometimes belted under the breast, and narrow from the knees to the ankles. The circumference of the hemline was less than thirty-six inches. Some hobble skirts were decorated with wide bands of fabric or sashes at the hemline, which created a strong restriction that further reduced the wearers’ ability to walk. The skirt gave the appearance that the wearer had only one leg.

The hobble skirt first appeared as an item of fashion in Paris in the spring of 1910. It is frequently contended that the skirt first appeared as a costume for an actress who wanted a dress that would provide a pleasing contrast to a pillar that she had to lean against in a play. In fact, Poiret initially designed the skirt in order to achieve the new look that he envisioned for women, a look that would be dramatically different from that of the ample-skirted woman who had dominated fashion for decades. The hobble skirt blended the designer’s straight-line look with his interest in classical style. He once noted, “I freed the bosom, shackled the legs, but gave liberty to the body.”

Although the skirt inhibited women’s freedom of movement (as they were forced to hobble rather than walk), it was accepted and even sought after because of Poiret’s status in high couture. If Poiret had introduced the hobble skirt seven years earlier, when he was just beginning to establish himself professionally, it might well have been rejected. Women in search of the new wore the skirt, regardless of their discomfort, in large measure because Poiret told them it was the apex of style.

When women wearing the hobble skirt first appeared on the streets of Paris in late spring and early summer of 1910, journalists vigorously attempted to persuade others to reject it. City officials also entered the fray, because women in hobble skirts created traffic delays when they slowly crossed streets or attempted to step into carriages or other vehicles. Women hobbling down the street were jeered or verbally chided by many males for wearing such fashion foolishness. At a performance of a play at the Théâtre Michel attended by Poiret, colored slides of the hobble skirt were projected onto a screen during the intermission; when the eighth slide was shown, many of the theater patrons began loudly to complain about the presentation. The outcry reached such an intense pitch that a number of patrons attempted to assault Poiret as he sat in his theater box.

Strident public rejection of one facet of his design efforts did not deter Poiret. In a new collection displayed six months after the original showing of the hobble skirt, he introduced the design again. This time, some citizens managed to persuade the pope to denounce the skirt, and priests were ordered to refuse absolution to any woman wearing one. As Poiret expected, however, the outcry against the style did not adversely affect sales. The number of his clients increased, and other designers began to copy the style. Soon, copies were being sold in department stores around the world.

During the late fall of 1910, one of Poiret’s German customers, the owner of a department store in Berlin, requested that the couturier personally show his collection, including the hobble skirt, in the German capital. Poiret did so with enormous success. The next year, Poiret and his wife drove throughout Europe presenting shows of his designs. His models and his trunks of clothing followed by train. Although Poiret’s work was well received in various European cities, it was jubilantly welcomed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. While in Moscow, Poiret met Romain de Tirtoff, later to be called Erté, a young artist who sketched some of the couturier’s creations and was hired to be Poiret’s assistant designer. Poiret’s fashion and business instincts proved correct. The hobble skirt was universally accepted by women interested in a new look.


Poiret quickly introduced various modifications to the hobble skirt, some subtle and others dramatic. Using models he selected personally, Poiret promoted a T-shaped silhouette, with slim skirts and large hats with wide brims that were decorated with large ribbons or feathers. Because the skirts were so slim, Poiret eliminated pockets and reintroduced the handbag. Like the hats, Poiret’s handbags were quite large. He also offered the muff, made of swansdown or fur, as an alternative accessory to the handbag. When swans became a protected species and the cost of fur increased, he designed muffs in lamb, sealskin, and mink. Other accessories Poiret used to underscore his T-shaped silhouette included gloves—usually long and white—and umbrellas and parasols that were long and tightly furled.

Shortly after the first hobble skirt appeared, Poiret presented a similar skirt with a slit added at the hemline on the side or the front of the garment to allow more mobility. Because this made a small portion of the wearer’s legs visible, Poiret, quickly followed by other designers, set aside the extensively decorative stockings of the nineteenth century and encouraged his clients to wear plain stockings made of either lisle or, for the very wealthy, silk, with a small decorative design on the sides.

In 1912, Poiret once again modified the hobble skirt, this time more for visual effect than for practicality: He added a tunic over the skirt. The tunics were made of various materials, including lace; gold lace was a favorite for wearing over hobbles in the evening. By the end of 1912, the couturier modified the tunic twice. It was first shortened and made fuller, especially at the hips; this design was referred to as a “pannier.” The silhouette thus achieved was that of a peg top, and the style bore that name. Within a year, the tunic was allowed to drop down the length of the skirt in a sloping fashion to the ankles. Another change evolved from the costumes that Poiret designed for a theatrical show. He retained the hobble design, but the tunic became a knee-length, belted affair that was wired at the hemline to produce a flare. The wired tunic found favor among his clients, and it became as popular as the pegtop version. By 1914, this style was referred to as the “lampshade tunic.”

Poiret’s modifications of the hemlines of his fashions also led him to alter the necklines of his blouses and dresses. He introduced the V-neck to replace the high Edwardian collars that had dominated nineteenth century styles. Once women began to appear in V-necked garments, many clergy declared their disapproval and condemned the style as immoral. Numerous physicians joined the protest, arguing that exposing the throat could adversely affect a woman’s health. Rejecting these remonstrances, women accepted, wore, and, by demand, perpetuated the style.

By 1914, the popular vertical-line garment that created the T-shaped silhouette was no longer deemed suitable for the work that women were called on to perform during World War I. Although Poiret adamantly refused to accept the changes that a world at war unleashed on Europe, he had unknowingly established a baseline from which new and often more practical fashion evolved. All that other designers had to do was discard the hobble and add length to the tunic for a seemingly new and more utilitarian style to emerge. By 1915, the hobble skirt was past fashion. The tunic became a dress or was dissected to become a blouse and a skirt with a hemline that ended six or more inches from the ankle; by 1916, hemlines were ten inches from the ground.

After World War I, Poiret continued to create new designs, but he was unable to recapture the imagination and thus the support of modern women, who reflected the legacies of the couturier not only in the image of physical form but in their manner of dress as well. During the later years of his life, he devoted his time to painting and to making plans for an institute of design. He died April 28, 1944, an innovator who had established the direction for modern women’s fashion but who had rejected the nature of its progression. Fashion design;hobble skirt
Hobble skirt
Fashion designers;Paul Poiret[Poiret]

Further Reading

  • Byrde, Penelope. A Visual History of Costume: The Twentieth Century. New York: Drama Book, 1986. Primarily a presentation of sketches, paintings, and photographs of men’s, women’s, and children’s fashions from 1900 to 1984, with captions describing styles across the twentieth century. A short introduction offers an informative overview. Includes a reproduction of a lithograph showing a model in a hobble skirt that appeared in Chic Parisien in 1911.
  • Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Rev. ed. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992. Contains useful information on the hobble skirt and Poiret. Text is tastefully supported with drawings and reproductions of illustrations from fashion magazines. Includes a section on the experiences of workers in the fashion industry and statistics on their earnings.
  • Langner, Lawrence. The Importance of Wearing Clothes. Rev. ed. Los Angeles: Elysium Growth Press, 1991. Offers insightful observations about the cultural forces that have given rise to various fashions, including the hobble skirt. Includes illustrations.
  • Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 4th ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002. Comprehensive guide to all of the major events in costume and fashion design practically since human beings began wearing clothes. Includes discussion of the motivations of fashion design as well as information on individual designers. Features more than three hundred illustrations.
  • Nunn, Joan. Fashion in Costume, 1200-2000. 2d ed. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 2000. Provides descriptions of the hobble skirt and the tunic that are worthy of note. Also offers interesting information on fabrics and furs used by early twentieth century fashion designers. Illustrated with black-and-white sketches. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Poiret, Paul. King of Fashion: The Autobiography of Paul Poiret. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1931. Places Poiret’s work in the context of his times. Interesting and informative, despite Poiret’s expression of racist sentiments.
  • Tortora, Phyllis, and Keith Eubank. A Survey of Historic Costume. 4th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2005. Detailed account of all aspects of fashion from ancient times to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Many illustrations.
  • Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. 1954. Reprint. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 2000. Presents a detailed history of the corset and the petticoat. Illustrations include reproductions of different patterns used to make corsets and petticoats.
  • White, Palmer. Poiret. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1973. Interesting, informative, readable, and graphically pleasing biography of Paul Poiret. The text is enhanced by photographs of Poiret and his family and friends, in addition to many other illustrations.

Chanel Defines Modern Women’s Fashion

Jantzen Popularizes the One-Piece Bathing Suit

Schiaparelli’s Boutique Mingles Art and Fashion