On one of those million and one BBC websites there is a report of this singular phenomenon from the 19th century. The website claimed for a brief time there was a fashion among women to feign a limp in public when there was nothing the matter with them. This was more than a daft fashion mistake à la platform soles, regrettable facial tattoos, wearing a baseball cap backwards or twerking. The reason why the healthy impersonated the lame (of which there were a great number in Victorian England) was to copy a royal who had a bit of knee trouble.
Here’s the way the BBC site explained it: “Alexandra of Denmark was the bride of the Prince of Wales, and a 19th century fashion icon. The clothes she wore were copied as well. The chokers she wore to conceal a scar on her neck were copied. And when a bout of rheumatic fever left her with a pronounced limp… Well, that was copied too.”
Not to deny that the writer had done his homework about the “Alexandra Limp”, (yes, it had its own name), but I had to see what was being said at the time about “people from duchesses to shop girls” who were hobbling in sympathy with the royal infirmity, for I could not believe it could have been anything approaching widespread — but it was. The family affliction of rheumatoid arthritis in 1867 meant she could barely walk.
In sympathy, across the nation and further afield too, women bought pairs of shoes where one shoe had a heel and one a flatty, while dragging a heavy walking stick simply to carry off the affectation that showed how much they loved the Royals. By the end of the year 1869, the New York World reported that there were even imitators in that city.
For 20 years the story would surface now and then, reminding readers of the follies of the past. Poor Alexandra had a tough life though. Not only did she have to tolerate her tubby hubby’s countless and very public affairs and the scar, early on in life she became deaf and — you’ve guessed it, her band of acolytes thought it the thing to say “pardon?” and cup their hand to an ear. But while she was beloved enough in England, writers for American consumption were less deferent. Writing in 1897 the New York Press correspondent gave this backhanded compliment: “Still, she is still a young looking woman and might pass easily for an elder sister of her not too pretty daughters.” Miaow.
Another fascinating fact was how free then the British press felt in discussing the health problems of the royals. Under the headline “Royal Limpers”, the North Eastern Daily Gazette did a background piece. Shuffling alongside Princess Alexandra were the permanently unsteady on his feet Prince of Wales, his mum Queen Victoria (chronic rheumatism) the late Duke of Albany, who fell down some stairs. But they weren’t the worst — the King of the Belgians? “Very lame” said the paper.