Dress Dwarves

One of my regulars at the SF Book Group and a chum of Charlie Stross’ was in yesterday buying one of the excellent Sookie Stackhouse Vampire Mysteries from me. She explained she had missed the recent meeting because she is knee deep in wedding preparations. As she is having a Victorian period dress made it somewhat limits her range of movement and she thinks a short walk down the aisle is as much as can be managed in one of those dresses.

I explained to her, using my vast historical knowledge, that she had misunderstood Victorian dress design. She is not supposed to walk – the voluminous basket hoops of the huge skirt is designed to allow space for a concealed dwarf. The lady is mounted on an early form of roller skates and the hidden dwarf pushes her along under her enormous skirts, signalling the dwarf directions by twitching her right or left leg muscles.

Naturally this gave a graceful, floating motion to Victorian ladies. Gentlemen of the time assumed that Ladies of Quality were obviously superior, graceful creatures and the ladies and their dressmakers maintained the illusion by concealing the secret of their locomotion (and the dwarves). Of course, the ladies had to take great care not to sit down while the dwarves were still underneath them.

As the Victorian era gave way to the Edwardian era the dress design changed once more and the dwarves soon found themselves out of work in large numbers. This period coincides with the mass emigration of a goodly number of dwarves from Britain and the Empire to America, where many found gainful employment working for P T Barnum. Their descendants today have often found themselves back under heavy clothing once more as they don costumes for various George Lucas movies, but it seems unlikely that fashion will see a return to dwarf-powered roller-skating ladies in large dresses.

All of which historical curiosities brings me neatly to a new book released by HarperCollins this week called Mutants. It is a history of human genetic mutations and has on the cover one of the famous 16th century ‘wolf children’ – a little girl in period costumer at a Royal Court who, along with her family, were entirely covered in hair, even more than Robin Williams. This is thought to be one of the sources of the werewolf myth. The book also contains other charming tales, such as the lady with a supernumery breast (a spare one on her thigh, apparently). Sounds like my kind of book. Still, for a history of mutants and freaks I still think you can’t beat Tod Browning’s 1932, little-shown Freaks. The director of Dracula had started his career as a carnie working the freak shows traversing America in the early and mid 20th centuries and used a number of his old chums, all real-life freaks, in the film. It is not often shown today, probably because TV and cinema managers are worried they may offend someone, which is a shame as it is a classic. Altogether now: “one of us, one of us, one of us” (chanted as the freaks take revenge on the trapeze artist who mocked them by disfiguring her and making her too into a freak).