Fashion Stories: The Wright Flyer and the Hobble Skirt

My apologies if you have already seen this image on Instagram, but I’m still looking for the answer to a question I asked there:

Is there any evidence that this 1908 photo inspired Paul Poiret to design his hobble skirt? Or is this just one more modern interpretation of the past?

I have been reading David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers and in it the story is repeated that Poiret saw the photo and had an inspiration. This is not referenced in the endnotes, however.

A photograph of Madame Berg seated on the Flyer at Wilbur Wright’s side, beaming with pleasure in advance of takeoff, made an unprecedented magazine cover, and the famous Paris dress designer Paul Poiret, quick to see the possibilities in the rope around the ankles, produced a hobble skirt that became a fashion sensation.

In looking for the answer, I made the obvious series of Google searches, and in doing so found more and more misinformation. Edith Berg, seen in the photo, and who was the first American woman to ride in an airplane, is sometimes identified as Katherine Wright, the sister of the brothers. In some tellings of the stories, Wilbur tied the robe around Mrs. Berg’s legs, in some she tied the rope, and in others her husband tied it. One site calls Mrs. Berg “Hart Berg”, which was her husband’s name. Others claim she was the first passenger to ride in the Flyer.

Even the Smithsonian site has a suspect version of the story:

 A French fashion designer watching the flight was impressed with the way Mrs. Berg walked away from the aircraft with her skirt still tied. Mrs. Berg was then credited with inspiring the famous “Hobble Skirt” fashion.

To be fair, many of the sites I found tell the story as a “possibility.” But in others it is related as fact. Several even gave the Wright Brothers credit for “inventing” the hobble skirt.

The closest thing I’ve found to a contempory source was quoted in Alison Matthews David’s book, Fashion Victims. A New York Times article from June, 1910 called the hobble skirt the aeroplane skirt. This does seem to hint at a connection to the skirt and to the practice of early women passengers having their skirts tied below the knees.

I also found a 1928 article based on an interview with Edith Ogilvy Druce, formerly Mrs. Berg. In the article she claimed to have inspired the hobble skirt.

I know that Poiret was not one to admit his fashion inspirations, so I doubt that he related this story even if it were true. He did write an autobiography, but I have not read it. If he was inspired by the photo, why did he not make the first of his hobble skirts until two years later, in 1910?

I know I’ve presented more questions than I have answers, and I have one more. Is the answer even out there?




Filed under Fashion Issues

14 responses to “Fashion Stories: The Wright Flyer and the Hobble Skirt

  1. jacq staubs

    i remember asking my grandmother what this “hobble skirt” was overhearing a conversation she and her sister and friends were having. They may have been clearing out (they never threw anything away)laughing about it. Only thing i remember from the answer was… impossible to walk in-and a back pleat/slit was considered daring! They said it was nonsense-but had one anyway-wore it once! LOL!?


  2. Christina

    I think the Wright story is fun but very suspect. It’s a natural extension for the harem and eastern form to influence Poiret and evolve into the hobble skirt.


  3. These “origin stories” can drive you mad! Maybe someone could write a book on suspect fashion stories.


  4. seweverythingblog

    I assume there’s a practical reason for tying up the skirt? To prevent it from billowing in the windy skies? She would have been better off by being daring and wearing bloomers (I might have made a history faux pas here) if bloomers were invented then.
    Sorry, I wish I had a clear answer to your question about whether Poiret was inspired by this image. But that’s why I look forward to your blog posts, to get accurate history about wardrobes of average Americans.


  5. I think it’s a wonderful piece of fashion myth. Kudos to you for trying to get to the bottom of it. I love when fashion is a mystery. I was happy when I saw you did this post, no apologies needed!


  6. Gail

    I’m sorry. I don’t have any answers about the inspiration for hobble skirt, but you just gave me the answer to what to give my husband for his birthday. He likes books about flying and I like anything by David McCullough. I just ordered the book.
    I love your blog and this isn’t the first time I have been inspired to read or research something.



  7. I’m still wondering how she got out of the airplane with her legs tied together.


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