The Stupid Limping Fad Of Victorian Britain

By Nolan Moore on Saturday, November 29, 2014
407px-ALexandra_of_Denmark_Princess_of_Wales
“Fashion rests upon folly. Art rests upon law.” —Oscar Wilde

In A Nutshell

After her marriage to Prince Albert, Alexandra of Denmark (pictured above) became a British superstar and fashion icon. Devoted fans copied her dresses and necklaces, but things got really weird after Alexandra developed a pronounced limp. Suddenly, women across the UK were limping around on mismatched shoes, all in the name of fashion.

The Whole Bushel

The great Oscar Wilde once described fashion as “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Take a quick look through the history books (or outside your window for that matter), and you’ll find the always-witty playwright is correct, as usual. Whether it’s powdered wigs or fake braces, there are always plenty of people eager to jump on the bad-fad bandwagon.

But perhaps the worst fashion faux pas of all time (yes, even worse than Crocs) was the Alexandra Limp. However, to fully grasp the true stupidity of this upper crust craze, you need to know a bit about Alexandra of Denmark. Born to Danish royalty in 1844, Alexandra was eventually picked to marry Queen Victoria’s son, the party-going Prince Albert. The future Edward VII was a notorious gambler and womanizer, and Victoria hoped the sweet Alexandra might tame her wild child.

Well, she didn’t. Albert kept on with his philandering ways, but life as a British monarch wasn’t all bad. Alexandra became the Princess of Wales from 1863 to 1901, and in fact, she held the title longer than anyone else. She had several kids, including George V (for all you non-Brits, that’s Colin Firth’s dad in The King’s Speech), and eventually became queen consort after Victoria kicked the royal bucket.

From the moment Alexandra showed up on British soil, she was a 19th-century superstar. Flocks of people gathered round whenever Alexandra stepped outside. As one history book from 1921 put it, Alexandra was so beloved she could turn “a Socialist meeting into a demonstration of loyalty.” Her popularity probably had something to do with her good looks and joie de vivre. After all, this was a princess who loved to dance and ice skate and wasn’t going to stop just because she was the mother of the future king, thank you very much. People also appreciated her charitable spirit. She’s the woman who founded the nursing branch of the British Army and started the fundraising event known as Alexandra Rose Day. In other words, she was awesome.

And just like any modern-day celebrity, Alexandra had legions of fans who wanted to dress and act just like her. For example, Alexandra has a scar on her neck from a childhood accident, and she was kind of embarrassed about it. So to hide the scar, the princess wore choker necklaces, and wouldn’t you know it? Upper-class women across the kingdom started copying her look. But sometimes, her fans took things a little too far.

After giving birth to her third child in 1867, Alexandra contracted a nasty bout of rheumatic fever. While she recovered, the fever left with her a rather noticeable limp. And that’s when a strange craze swept the nation. High society women in cities like London and Edinburgh started limping everywhere they went. They limped around the house, they limped down the street, they limped their way to tea and back again. To give their “handicap” a realistic look, ladies wore mismatched shoes, one high, one low. Walking canes also suddenly became a very chic accessory. Things got even worse when merchants started intentionally selling uneven shoes so ladies could limp about properly.

As you might expect, newspapers of the day were aghast. Shocked that so many would mimic an ailing woman, the Dundee Courier and Argus described the fad as involving “a spice of wickedness as well as of folly.” Equally incredulous, the North British Mail spitefully said, “A monstrosity has made itself visible among the female promenaders in Prince Street. It is as painful as it is idiotic and ludicrous.”

Fortunately, their disdain didn’t have to last for very long. Like all ridiculous fashions, the Alexandra Limp eventually faded away, probably because women got tired of being lopsided all the time. As for Alexandra, she passed away in 1925 at the ripe old age of 81, outliving the terrible trend she accidentally inspired.

Show Me The Proof

Oscar Wilde in America
Museum Victoria: HM Queen Alexandra
Queen Alexandra: A Study of Royalty, by William Rutherford Hayes Trowbridge
BBC Magazine: Victorian Strangeness: The bizarre tale of the ladies who limped