Walking upstairs in long skirts with both hands full - how?
June 24, 2021 7:21 AM   Subscribe

How did servants (or anyone, really) walk upstairs in long skirts with a tray or two buckets or anything that left them without a hand free to hold said skirt out of the way?

Just tried to carry two cups of tea up the stairs in my Victorian house whilst wearing a full ankle-length skirt and it nearly ended in tears. I had to put both cups down and tuck the skirt into my undergarments, which I can't imagine was seemly for a servant or for the lady of the house back in the day? Or was it? How did skirt-wearers handle this? Obviously answers from historians or historical sources would be AMAZING but I will also accept guesses, wild conjecture, and intentionally wrong answers if they are funny.
posted by cilantro to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (22 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (I did find this absolutely delightful screed against pointless skirt-hiking in period films, which I highly recommend, but it doesn't address my question, specifically)
posted by cilantro at 7:27 AM on June 24, 2021 [10 favorites]

I don't know if this is what servants used but there is this.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:35 AM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: fingersandtoes, I need one of those! How clever.
posted by cilantro at 7:38 AM on June 24, 2021

Two things: servant skirts are usually a bit shorter than ankle length, and petticoats keep the skirt hem away from the body enough to not step on it going up stairs if youre careful. You let the hem kind of swing up out of the way each step. Hard to explain, and it does take practice. But if you needed to get upstairs quickly, yes, you would pull the skirt to the side so as not to trip and carry what you needed in one hand.
posted by ananci at 7:38 AM on June 24, 2021 [15 favorites]

Yeah, I think some of this you would deal with by only carrying things in one hand - on a tray, in a basket held by a handle or balanced on the hip, etc. Slightly shorter skirt length can be a game-changer - the difference between three inches above the floor and six is huge. Upright posture also helps - if you're leaning forward as you charge up the stairs, your skirts will be under your feet, but if you stay upright and hover the hem of the skirt will kind of go ahead of you.

I think part of the answer, though, is that going up stairs in long dresses is difficult and that women did trip over their skirts and drop things or injure themselves with some frequency. Stairs were one of the big talking-points of the Rational Dress movement! Amelia Bloomer supposedly started wearing Turkish trousers (which would eventually become the eponymous "bloomers") after watching her cousin easily walk up the stairs while holding a baby.
posted by mskyle at 7:50 AM on June 24, 2021 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: I am now frantically searching for more info about the Rational Dress Movement! This is fascinating, thank you so much!
posted by cilantro at 7:56 AM on June 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'm going down a bit of a rabbit hole myself and I think I was actually conflating a couple different movements and apparently Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the one who had the cousin-related epiphany, which was then written up and popularized by Bloomer. But definitely women's dress reform advocates through the 19th century would cite the difficulty of going up and down stairs (while carrying delicate and/or dangerous things like babies and candles) as a reason to get away from long skirts!
posted by mskyle at 8:03 AM on June 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Servant dresses were not as long or ornate as non-servant dresses. Ankle-length or longer skirts were a class marker signifying that your family could afford to have an adult woman prioritize being decorative over performing physical labor.

Also seconding the statements about posture and skirt design. Those make a huge different in skirts but basically don't matter in pants.
posted by Ahniya at 8:05 AM on June 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

Bernadette Banner talks specifically about this in her review of The Nevers (starting at 20:00). Long and the short of it (haha)- there is a slightly different way of walking that people adopted with some of the skirting at the time, according to Banner.
posted by oflinkey at 8:08 AM on June 24, 2021 [24 favorites]

Was about to link to the same video but oflinkey beat me to it. Basically, you don't place your feet right in front of you, you place them wider more to the side which results in the skirt not getting in the way.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:14 AM on June 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Right, I'm going to go practice this skirt-kicking wide-stepping method from this video, I'll put some sofa cushions at the bottom of the stairs just in case.
posted by cilantro at 8:27 AM on June 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

Elaborate impractical clothing is a sign of status; it signals you do not need to labor or suffer other basic physical indignities. I suspect very few ladies of the house carried anything more than a fan in one hand while wearing full length dresses. As folks have said above, servants wore more practical clothing.
posted by Nelson at 8:45 AM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Women who wore long skirts would pin them up when they were taking care of the house and going up and down stairs a lot. I wear long flannel nightgowns, and tuck them into my knickers when using the stairs.
posted by theora55 at 9:06 AM on June 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Women used to practice walking. I wasn’t allowed heels out of the house until I could go up and down stairs with a book balanced on my head - one of the things this does is keep you upright, as mskyle recommends. My mother had a cup of water balanced on her head and her mother had to practice with a cup of milk, you don’t want to clean that out of everything.

Dancing waltz and polka in long dresses, a) dancing dresses were usually also slightly shorter than other dresses and b) you learn to keep your feet just barely off the floor so you never catch a hem.

Also, looking at old paintings and sketches, it seems to me that truly floor-sweeping skirts were always unusual and extravagant. I mean, they would be! Lots more ankles in old drawings than our inherited Edwardian mockery of Victorian excesses suggest.
posted by clew at 9:29 AM on June 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

Elaborate impractical clothing is a sign of status; it signals you do not need to labor or suffer other basic physical indignities.

To some degree, yes; but the baseline level of physical labor required in that time period of almost everyone was much higher than it is today. Remember, nothing--not light, heat, or water, even--got upstairs unless human physical labor was deployed to get it up there. A candle and a baby is two hands, right there.

In addition to the pinning and the kicking step, a woman of affluent but not completely idle status might wear a different dress in the day (or at least the morning), while more likely to be working or overseeing others' labor, then she might at night (or in the afternoon, "at home"), when she might be entertaining.
posted by praemunire at 9:30 AM on June 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

Stair design fails was investigated a couple of years ago in Hidden Killers. Servant stairs were steeper: less 'going' more 'rise' - hazardous even without the skirt issues.
posted by BobTheScientist at 9:37 AM on June 24, 2021 [7 favorites]

There’s a little novel Kipps that I recommend all the time partly for its attacks on the coal-era class system. There’s a great jeremiad by a woman who grew up expecting to be a servant about how badly houses are designed for the work that’s going to be done in them, because no one cares how the serving women suffer. (Serving men were noticeably more expensive and could make more demands.)
posted by clew at 9:46 AM on June 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

I’ve had to do this backstage more than once! I pull the skirt up high enough that I can pull it all to one side and drape it over my elbow or tuck it under my upper arm. But I don’t know if this is how any real 19th-century people did it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:43 PM on June 24, 2021

1896 still photo, from a film, of a not-servant-class woman climbing a gangplank using one hand to lift her skirts a little.

Skirt lifters, which sped and minimized the process in the post-crinoline pre-WWI era.

There are also patents for skirt-lifting arrangements built into the skirt, very like Roman blinds, though iirc they were mostly used by bicyclists.
posted by clew at 2:45 PM on June 24, 2021

Servants wore aprons - which have apron strings - which were designed to go completely around the waist and into which you would tuck the skirt to keep it out of the way while you were working.

My grandmother went to Swiss finishing school, hated housework and nagged my grandfather to buy her a farm. I remember her supervising the farm workers with the skirt tucked out of the way on one side. If she needed to gather or carry items, the edges of the apron would be tucked under the apron strings to create a pouch for transport.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 12:32 AM on June 25, 2021 [4 favorites]

It's difficult to explain, but as above yes, a skirt that hangs a little away from the body and a sort of mini-kick thing and I have successfully climbed the stairs on a moving double decker bus in a longer than ankle length skirt without hitching it because my hands were full. Not sure I could do it now as I'm very out of practice.

I had a phase of wearing really long skirts, and tripped on the stairs a few times as I don't have great co-ordination, but it was more frequent to be tripped when going downstairs by someone standing on the back of my skirt than tripping going upstairs.

While servants clothing was more practical, it was often not terribly practical - there are accounts in "Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present" of maids burning to death because they misjudged how close their crinoline was to the fire.
posted by Vortisaur at 2:36 PM on June 25, 2021

Dumb waiters were a part of many houses that could afford servants.
posted by FranzKanner at 1:23 AM on July 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

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