The XX Factor

How the Great Blizzard of 1888 Killed the Petticoat

11th Street, New York, NY, looking west. The Great Blizzard of March 12, 1888.

Suitably fashioned New Yorkers brave 11th Street during the Great Blizzard of 1888.

NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) Collection

In 1888, a blizzard hit New York City with such ferocity that it propelled the city into the 20th century. Telegraph and telephone wires whipped dangerously in the wind, prompting the New York Times to call for an underground power line system. Thirty-foot snow drifts stranded passengers between elevated railroad stations, spurring plans for a subway system. And heavy petticoats made it so difficult for women to traverse the snow that it’s no wonder a sleeker silhouette would soon come into fashion. Via NYC Subway, here’s the New York Sun account of how the city’s women braved the storm on March 13, 1888:

Few of the women who work for their living could get to their work places. Never, perhaps, in the history of petticoats was the imbecility of their designer better illustrated. “To get here I had to take my skirts up and clamber through the snowdrifts,” said a wash-woman when she came to the house of the reporter who writes this. She was the only messenger from the world at large that reached that house up to half past 10 o’clock. “With my dress down I could not move half a block.”

It was so with thousands of women; the thousand few who did not turn back when they had started out. Thus women were seen to cross in front of THE SUN office and at many of the busiest corners up town. But all the women in the streets assembled together would have made a small showing. They are said to be much averse to staying in, but they stayed in as a rule yesterday. At half past 10 o’clock not a dozen stores on Fulton street in this city, had opened for business. Men were making wild efforts to clean the walks, only to see each shovelful of snow blown back upon them and piled against the doors again.

“Have the girls come?” an employer asked of his partner. “Girls!” said the porter: “I have not seen a woman blow through Fulton street since I’ve been here.”

Women who did venture into the storm risked being trapped in a prison of skirt and ice. According to the Sun: “A woman attempting to cross Nassau street was obliged to call for help. She said she had lost her strength, and her clothing was so entangled with her limbs that she could not move.” By the 1890s, the feminine ideal of the “Gibson Girl” wore a tighter, narrower skirt, befitting what the Library of Congress calls her “more visible and active role in the public arena than women of preceding generations.”

What fashion trend do we hope will die an icy death in this terrible blizzard? I vote pelvage.