Skirt lifter, c. 1876

Today's post was researched and written by FIDM Museum's summer intern Joanna Abijaoude. Over the past several weeks, Joanna has assisted with multiple projects, including digitizing ephemera from The Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection and compiling research for an upcoming exhibition. Joanna is a 2014 M.A. candidate in the Visual Culture: Costume Studies M.A. program at New York University. In preparation for her thesis, she is researching Hollywood costume and 20th century designer Walter Plunkett. During her internship, Joanna became interested in skirt lifters, a distinctly Victorian accessory. In today's post, she explores the function, aesthetics, and cultural implications of a c. 1876 butterfly-motif skirt lifter in our collection.

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Though the Victorian era is well known for its ingenious inventions, this week I was introduced to a particularly clever gadget in the FIDM Museum’s Collection that
served a practical sartorial purpose: the skirt lifter.

2007518Skirt Lifter
c. 1876
Museum Purchase
2007.5.18

A skirt lifter
resembles a pair of small tongs, or scissors with padded circular discs instead
of blades. The Museum’s example is brass and features a decorative butterfly
that sits in between the handles. A small ring at the top would have held a
cord, ribbon, or chain to suspend the tool just below the waist. Modern
historians refer to the object as a “skirt lifter,” while period sources
predominately use the term “dress holder.” When I initially encountered this
object, several questions immediately came to mind: how was the dress holder
incorporated into an ensemble and what occasions demanded its use? Did all
classes of women utilize it? Why was the butterfly a popular decorative motif
for this accessory?

Fortunately, the Museum’s dress
holder gives us a helpful clue to start our research in the form of a patent
date stamped on the side of the handle: October 16, 1876. In the later
nineteenth century, more women participated in outdoor sporting hobbies such as
promenading, croquet, and archery. An 1876 article in The Queen states “As the trains of outdoor dresses get longer and
longer a serviceable dress holder becomes more and more indispensable.”1
Other dress holders were simpler and came in pairs to wear for cycling and
similarly rigorous activities.2 There was also a resurgence of the polonaise dress during this period, an
ensemble consisting of an overdress gathered up in elegant drapes to expose a
decorative petticoat – a look that referenced the eighteenth century robe à la polonaise. The skirt lifter
both pulled the dress up to avoid soiling the hem and created the fashionable gathered
drapes of the polonaise. According to The
Atlanta Constitution
, dress holders were worn “suspended from the right,”3
as seen in these two fashion plates:

Untitled
The
Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine
, 1870

Peterson's magazine
Peterson’s
Magazine
, June 1879

Fashion scholar C. Willet Cunnington
suggests dress holders were worn as early as 1846 to pull the dress up while
walking,4
but the trend reached its peak of popularity from the 1860s to the 1880s. As
promenading and other outdoor pursuits became stylish, the tool was “much used
by the elegantes to raise the trains
of their walking dresses,”5 making skirt lifters a definitive fashion statement. Apparently, though, it was not a universally admired accessory, as Godey’s Lady’s Book called the dress
holder “useful but not pretty.”6
Other cord and loop mechanisms were employed to pull the dress into folds, but
many of these were hidden under the skirt, or disguised by ribbons and bows.
The skirt lifter was the most visible and decorative accessory used for this
purpose. It could be worn on its own, or as one of the multiple tools dangling
from a chatelaine, an ornamental belt with chains and clasps to hold a lady’s
various accoutrements: fan, parasol, eyeglasses, sewing scissors.7

The Queen
Chatelaine dress holders and belt clasps featured in The Queen, October 14, 1876

We now know who wore the dress
holder and why, so let’s turn our attention to the charmingly detailed
butterfly that covers the handles. The FIDM Museum’s dress holder was made in
1876 during the height of the Aesthetic movement, which eschewed the mass
produced goods of industrialism in favor of artistic ideals and quality
craftsmanship – “art for art’s sake.”8
The butterfly represents Aestheticism’s embrace of Asian design influences, so
much so that the renowned painter James Whistler, a major proponent of this
artistic movement, created a signature monogram with his initials stylized into
a butterfly.9 Though
this skirt lifter was mass produced, the manufacturer was marketing its
products according to the fashionable motifs of the era.

La ModeButterfly embroidery featured in La Mode Illustrée, February 21, 1875

WhistlerJames Whistler, “Butterfly Monogram,” Charcoal on paper The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 23.230.8

With
this one lovely accessory, we have gleaned information about the sartorial,
social, and cultural trends of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. It represents
women’s progression out of the home and into the public sphere, and as their
participation in outdoor recreation continued to grow, their desire to
elegantly adapt fashion for physical activity was met by this dress holder.

 

 

1 Ardern Holt, The Queen, November 1876.
2 Genevieve E. Cummins and Nerylla D. Taunton, Chatelaines: Utility to Glorious
Extravagance
(Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd., 1994),
161.

4 C. Willet Cunnington, English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century (London: Faber & Faber, 1937), 145.

5 Le Follet, “Fashions for August,” The Manchester Guardian, July 29, 1876.
6 “Chitchat on Fashions for September,” Godey’s
Lady’s Book and Magazine,
September 1878.
7 Cummins
and Taunton, Chatelaines, 160.
8 David Jaffee, “America Comes of Age: 1876-1900,” in Heilbrunn
Timeline of Art History
(New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007),
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/amer/hd_amer.htm.
9 Barbara H. Weinberg, “James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903),” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 2010), http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/whis/hd_whis.htm.

14 responses to “Skirt lifter, c. 1876

  1. keren b. says:

    This is a wonderful post!
    How do I get in touch with author? I am working on a book and would like to offer her to contribute a sidebar on this topic.

    Keren

  2. keren b. says:

    Thank you! I am looking forward to hearing back from her. The book by the way is with Schiffer Publishing and is due out Fall 2015.

  3. I never would’ve guessed how this was used. We’re so out of touch with the culture of that era. Very interesting. Thank you.

  4. Carolyn says:

    Wonderful post! Something I’d never heard of before. So, I gather the primary intention of the dress holder was to allow women’s hands to remain free from holding up their skirts themselves? Is there some sort of little lock system/mechanism on the FIDM’s example to enable the holder to maintain its grip on the dress? Hooks on the underside of the butterfly, or something like that?

  5. Rachel says:

    Hi Carolyn

    Thanks for your question!

    The two bars forming a V-shape behind the butterfly are loosened by pinching them together at the top, and sliding the butterfly up the bars. Then, the skirt can be placed inside the opened prongs at the bottom. To close, the bars are pinched together again, the ring is slid back down, and the bars are released, clamping the fabric in place.

    The purpose of the skirt lifter was to raise the skirt without having to constantly hold it in your hand. Also, the skirt could be arranged perfectly, and then clamped, creating a pretty cascade of fabric, rather than just grabbing the folds of material.

  6. Cathy Kawalek says:

    Hello,

    Would you also put me in touch with the author? I would like to access one of the sources listed in her bibliography. Wonderful article, thank you!

  7. Val LaBore says:

    I bought one of these recently, a rather plain one, but am puzzled by how it was attached to the waistband.
    The “pads” on the clamps are rubbery and would have a very good grip on the skirt fabric.

  8. Rachel says:

    Hi Val,

    Wonderful that you were able to acquire a skirt lifter of your own!

    As you can see in the images, skirt lifters were usually attached to the waist via a chatelaine and/or belt. On our skirt lifter, the small ring at the top would have been used to thread a chain, which would have been attached to a chatelaine, which was then attached to the skirt at the waist, probably via a chain belt of some type. Hope this info helps!

  9. Rachel says:

    Cathy, yes, I’m happy to pass your contact info on to the author!

  10. Ann Dixon says:

    This is an excellent article. I would like to share it on the Frontier Women’s Living History Assn. blog at http://frontierwomen.blogspot.com/2013/11/skirt-lifters.html We are a group of Living Historians that portray the lives of women on the Texas frontier. We are always looking for good information to expand our knowledge. Thanks for the great information

  11. Karen Jessee says:

    This is a fascinating post and I’m thrilled to have found it. I just recently purchased a skirt lifter of my own for a third historical program I’m creating. Looking forward to knowing more about the author as well.

  12. Karen Jessee says:

    I would like to comment on the images. While the skirt lifter is indeed featured, it appears to be more ornamental than instrumental. There is still a great deal of skirt / train on the ground to get in the way or soiled during a sporting activity Were these images designed to merely feature the accessory because I don’t think they really exemplify the purpose. I’d appreciate your feedback on this. Thank you

  13. Dixie Bailey says:

    Were the chains ever made from hair ? I was told that mine was hair .

  14. FIDM Museum says:

    Hi Dixie,
    Our curators have not seen a skirt lifter made with hair chains – hair work was typically reserved for jewelry. But perhaps you have the rare example!

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