Monday, June 16, 2014

Skirt lifters - the Victorian war on filth

by Deborah Swift

The way to manage a long skirt had been a problem for women for centuries. In the eighteenth century, small brushes were fitted to hems to keep dust away from the wearer's shoes, and aristocratic ladies paid a crossing sweeper a tip to sweep away garbage which lay in their path. But it wasn't until the nineteenth century that a practical solution became popular - the 'skirt lifter', also known as a 'page'.

In 1876 safety pins were patented, but they were not often used for fear of damaging fine or flimsy fabrics. Pinning the skirt also meant that the hem was permanently raised, something which was undesirable and risked exposing the ankles. 

The skirt-lifter, on the other hand, became immensely popular as soon as it was devised. They were made usually of brass, or silver-plated, and were attached to the belt, hanging at hem-level. Often shaped like tongs or scissors, the circular cushioned grip could then be attached to the edge of the skirt. There was a catch to lock the grips in place, and these were decorated in various ways. The wearer would then pull up the chain to lift the skirt clear of any dirt or mess. The cushioned or felted grips protected delicate fabrics from the grease of the hand or from dirty gloves which were often worn outdoors in this period.

The skirt-lifters to the left are English or American circa 1895 and show popular designs of a flower and a lucky horseshoe. Hands, butterflies, hearts or fans were other common motifs.

As well as keeping skirts clear of dirt, ladies would also use them when riding, climbing stairs, dancing, or engaging in that newest of sports - bicycling.

If you want to find out more about devices for supporting skirts, then the Patents Office has more information. See this hilarious post which details the patent for a "combined chest-expander, skirt and bodice retainer, and stocking-suspender"! Surely an invention we would all love to have!

In the 1870's there was a revival of the popularity of the chatelaine, and these often then incorporated a skirt-lifter amongst their hanging objects of thimbles, needle holders, card cases and perfume bottles. Medieval themes were popular in Victorian England and Victorian women liked to view themselves as the mistress of the house or castle,  like the original 'lady of the castle' or chatelaine. Many chatelaines featured mock keys to add to the jangling collection.

Here is a wonderful page of articles on Chatelaines from Collector's Weekly. Do pop over there to look at the great pictures. The article is excellent and gives a great overview from an expert.

I have always had an interest in costume accessories from my time as a costume designer, so it has been fun to share this post with you. Chat with me on Twitter @swiftstory or at


  1. Such an interesting post. I think we need to reintroduce the chatelaine- I'm always losing my keys!

  2. If I ever need on i will just look for the tong I use to turn roasting hotdogs.

  3. Ha! Love that, Linda. Yes, I'd love a chatelaine. Mine would end up weighing too much, judging by the contents of my handbag!

  4. A very interesting article! Recently on Ebay, an Irish vendor had a Victorian dress, that had special built-in ties, that you pulled, to raise the dress when you were getting into a carriage. Needless to say, the dress sold for a premium price!

  5. That's interesting Denise. We used to have things a bit like that on our windows - like a fancy ruched blind. Back in the 1980's when overdressed windows were all the rage in the UK. I haven't seen it used that way on a Victorian dress before.

  6. After a skirt lifter was mentioned on the wonderful Radio 4 "Museum of Curiosity" I created an article about it - and used this post (found by googling) as one of my sources. See Thanks, Deborah.



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