Michaelmas

Today, September 29th, is Michaelmas, or the Feast of Saint Michael (Michael’s Mass, similar to Christmas – Christ’s Mass). Traditionally, this was the end of the harvest and the day rents and loans were due. Old British legends also said that this was the day that Saint Michael defeated Lucifer and cast him out of heaven. Lucifer fell into a blackberry bush and either spat or peed on them and spoiled the fruit, so blackberries should not be harvested after Michaelmas. In other versions of this superstition, it’s the pooka – a Faerie creature – who spoils the blackberries at the end of harvest time.

Ripe and unripe blackberries on the vine.
The tastiest blackberries are totally black and have lost their shine, but today is supposed to be the last day to pick them before they’re spoiled.

The Alexandra Limp

In 1869, a new fashion took hold among the young ladies of England: they began limping. They might intentionally snap the heel off one of their shoes or even buy a set of shoes designed to give them a limp. The important thing was to be seen shuffling unevenly around Hyde Park or the theater.

Speaking as someone who always walks with a limp, this would have been very uncomfortable. Walking unevenly strains your muscles and skeletal structure and leads to chronic pain. High heels and bras – or corsets – are not always comfortable, but this was an extreme sacrifice for fashion. So, why did the Victorian ladies do it?

The answer is Alexandra of Denmark, the Princess of Wales. She was immensely popular and a fashion setter in Britain. She wore chokers to disguise a scar on her throat, so chokers became popular among British ladies. In 1867, Princess Alexandra gave birth to her third child and became very ill with rheumatic fever – a complication of strep throat and scarlet fever that was sometimes deadly in the days before antibiotics. Princess Alexandra survived, but she had to learn to walk again using walking sticks, and she continued to limp. Ever anxious to follow their social leader, the fashionable ladies of England hurried to break their shoes and limp after her.

I’m not sure what Princess Alexandra thought about this, but the newspapers howled in outrage at the silliness of watching able-bodied young ladies limp all over London and other British towns. Perhaps thanks to the painful side effects of constantly limping, the fashion faded after a year or two, and ladies found other ways to torture themselves for fashion. Of course, people who had real limps didn’t leave them behind so easily. Princess Alexandra limped for the rest of her life.

A portrait of Princess Alexandra in a fashionable white dress.
Princess Alexandra in 1864

Princess Elizabeth in World War II

The death of Queen Elizabeth II marks the end of a 70-year era full of conflict and change. Born in 1926, she is the same age as actors Marilyn Monroe and Andy Griffith, dictator Fidel Castro, author Harper Lee, and musicians Miles Davis and Chuck Berry. She is part of a generation that came of age during World War II, and as with many of that generation, the war was a defining experience in her life.

Princess Elizabeth was thirteen when World War II broke out in 1939, and like many London children, her parents sent her away from the city for her safety, though she lived in Windsor Castle and still saw her parents often. The future Queen Elizabeth II made her first public speech during this time, addressing the other children who were separated from their parents by the war. Her parents stayed at Buckingham Palace in solidarity with the people of London, and the royal residence was bombed by German planes during the Blitz.

When she turned eighteen in 1944, Princess Elizabeth enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which was the female branch of the British Army designed to shift some non-combat military jobs to women to free men to fight. Her royal title didn’t earn her an automatic advancement, and she served as an auto mechanic and driver with a junior officer ranking. She was among 200,000 young women serving in the ATS, of which 335 were killed in the line of duty, and many others injured.

Princess Elizabeth wasn’t wounded in the line of duty, and the war ended in 1945. Probably breaking quite a few rules, she took to the streets to celebrate with everyone else, keeping her uniform hat pulled low so no one would recognize her. She linked arms with her future subjects and marched in celebration, and some rumors even say she danced in a Conga line.

Princess Elizabeth maintained an enjoyment of driving and engine repair into her reign as Queen Elizabeth II, and also an ability to connect with many of the citizens of her country. Some people credit her as the first royal British woman to serve in the armed forces. This ignores many medieval and Renaissance queens who took active roles in defending their countries, but it’s fair to say that Princess Elizabeth’s role in the war set a positive example for British women – royal and otherwise.

Princess Elizabeth in overalls changing a car tire.
Negative (H 41668) Original wartime caption: At a Vehicle Maintenance Class, Princess Elizabeth changes the wheel of a car. She is wearing overalls. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205513022

Dance Fans

Regency dances were complicated, involving many steps that participants had to remember. And the ballrooms were crowded with people dancing energetically, making them very hot. Clever ladies solved both of these problems by carrying fans decorated with fashionable dance steps. The examples below are from the Jane Austen cottage in Chawton.

This fan shows the steps of the quadrille (each circle is a different “figure” created by the dancers, so they all had to know their places and how to move in the circle so they didn’t crash into each other).
And this one has the music to several country dances.

With the help of fans such as these, ladies of Jane Austen’s time could stay on top of the latest dance steps and stay cool.