Another month of fashion weeks is nearing its end; another round of sinewy models have made their way down the runways of New York, London, Milan, and Paris, each young woman attempting to distinguish herself by adding a particular nuance—a hip pop, a head bob, an arm swing—to her gait. Nowadays, fashion observers take for granted the deliberately performative nature of these runway walks: Karlie Kloss’s stalk, Carmen Kass’s bounce. Watching these women work it, though, I began to wonder: How long have fashion models been refining their gaits? Were there other eras when women affected funny walks in the name of fashion?
Yes, it turns out: Strutting your stuff was a thing in the olden days. In fact, toward the turn of the 20th century, it became fashionable even for women who were not models to learn the walk of the moment. And these walks sound strange enough to put our comparatively straightforward modern-day affectations to shame. Such fads pop up fairly regularly in newspapers of the day, which described each new style—sometimes earnestly, sometimes with tongue firmly in cheek—detailing the movements of ankle, foot, hip, and chin with near-excruciating specificity.
Take for example, “the Aesthetic,” a walk reported on with what appears to be considerable disdain by the Lyons Weekly Mirror, an Iowa newspaper, in 1881. In performing this walk, a woman experiences the following rather alarming sequence of events:
insteps go in with a jerk, her hips fly back, her spinal column shoots forward at an angle of about forty-eight degrees and remains rigid, her neck lifts, her chin goes about an inch and five-eighths above its normal line, her nose naturally follows, and perhaps improves upon the incline, her arms to the elbow-points hug her sides like the wings of a duck, and the forearms hang like willow branches, while the hand that does not engage itself with the parasol hangs limp and languid. It requires two teeters to give the shakes to inertia, and off the aesthete goes.
Fortunately, for those ladies who couldn’t quite figure out how to measure the 48-degree angle of her spinal column or calculate a distance of 1 and 5/8 inches using her chin, the “Aesthetic” walk does not seem to have lasted very long. In its wake arrived a new, simpler walk: the “Newmarket March.” The Newmarket was named after the Newmarket overcoat, a single-breasted frock coat that gained traction among men in the early 1880s and was adapted for women later in the decade. According to the Washington Post, the ladies stole the coat’s design from the dandies of London, and the coat, in turn, inspired a somewhat mannish gait. “The distinctive feature,” the paper wrote,
is the turning out of the elbows, which are held rather stiffly, though allowed to swing at the sides. The body is inclined slightly forward from the hips, which are given a slight lateral motion. The stride is very long for a woman, and at every step the body lifts and falls with a kind of undulous rhythm, as though there were wings on the heels.
Sadly, the relative simplicity of the Newmarket March would not last long either. By 1886, fashion’s pendulum had swung again, towards a walk called the Saratoga, a sort of full-body vertical seizure whose execution made the Aesthetic seem like child’s play. The Hyde Park Herald, a Chicago paper, made delicious fun of this fad. “The first requisite,” wrote the Herald,
is to throw your shoulders back, the chest forward, chin up, and stomach in, and then walk—wriggling head, limbs, body, and especially bustle. The aim is to secure a series of revolutions which shall be simultaneous, but opposite. In simple brevity, if your head moves right, your body must move to the left, and before your foot reaches ground, you must describe a circle with the entire limb.
By the first decade of the 20th century, fashionable walking had become such a thing that people were supposedly opening schools to teach the subject, and newspapers were publishing long lists of out-of-style varietals. The Chicago Daily Tribune, in two separate articles, described half a dozen different walking styles of recent note. “Once a year a new walk comes in,” the paper declared in 1904, going on to chronicle such inventive forms of locomotion as the Springy Walk, which involved much bouncing on the balls of your feet; the Baby Walk, the key feature of which was, not surprisingly, tiny steps; the Athlete Stride, which ushered in a brief era “when every woman got there with startling suddenness”; the Glide Waltz, which featured a lot of swaying; the American Walk, also called the Tall Walk, which had recently taken hold of London and Paris; the Picadilly Walk, which was almost a stride, as “skirts were short and the fashionable woman took big steps and showed her shoes”; and the Swaying Walk, which made the woman look like a “yacht in a breeze.”
The Washington Post added more: the Pump Walk, essential if one wished to wear “the pretty walking slippers which are decidedly the vogue this season”; and the Gibson Walk, named after the Gibson Girl—an idealized female character who was drawn by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson and who, with her wasp waist and loose chignon, exemplified a particularly American kind of beauty and casual elegance. As the Gibson Girl became iconic at the turn of the century, she moved from magazines to the stage, and, in so doing, developed a signature way of moving. A Washington Times article from 1906 tells the happy tale of an actress named Camille Clifford, who portrayed a Gibson Girl on the stage in London and ended up married to an English Lord. The Times attributed her success to her walk: “as she gracefully paraded the stage with arms akimbo, head thrown back, nose tilted superciliously and her back curved like the quadrant of Regent street, the ‘Johnnies’ sat up and took notice.”
Why all this attention paid to the way women walked? I contacted several fashion historians to inquire, and the answer, they all told me, is simple: The role of women in society—and, accordingly, the way that women dressed and behaved—was suddenly in flux. Women were increasingly working outside the home and spending more and more time in public spaces. By defining and propagating these fashionable ways of moving, newspapers and other outlets gave women a sort of road map for how to comport themselves in public. Such walks also gave women a way to differentiate themselves—in their carriage, posture, and gait—from prostitutes, the original streetwalkers.
There’s another explanation as well: As female fashion changed—as the rigid corsetry of the Victorian and Edwardian eras gave way to more athletic-minded styles, as clothing became looser and skirts became shorter—women had a new freedom of movement. These fashionable walks reflected the styles of the age, just as dances would in decades to come.
Of course, there’s a less optimistic interpretation as well. As clothing became less restrictive and confining, and as women worked toward the vote and greater financial independence, the culture prescribed ways of moving that brought new kinds of restrictiveness and confinement. The Saratoga, the Picadilly, the Gibson, and so on can be seen as ways of controlling women’s bodies when clothing was no longer doing so.