Bartitsu and Bifurcated Girls; a Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective

A magazine called Vanity Fair (unrelated to the current incarnation) was the raciest thing around, and rooming house floozies (were) the hotties of their time. In this New York tabloid, girls who drank like men might strip down to their petticoats and fall into bed together, exposing their corset cover and stockings to peeping male boarders. The famously loose morals of stage actresses made them popular subjects for these shenanigans, but the biggest thrill of all was bifurcation. “What?” one may well ask. Bifurcation, meaning “split in two”, referred to the contours of a woman’s legs revealed by her donning men’s trousers. Bifurcation was a regular and very popular feature in Vanity Fair, it’s popularity leading to Vanity Fair’s Bifurcated Girls.

The use of girls in trousers to titillate the readers of Vanity Fair. Oh the Euphemisms!

Women in trousers have an ease of movement that a woman in skirts, petticoats, and corsets just can’t achieve. Flying skirts catch on corners and other sharp projecting objects. Heavy skirts wrap around ankles to drag and trip, particularly up and down steps (I wonder how many women died from falling down stairs?). In playing any form of sports, skirts would be an enormous disadvantage. However, the Victorian era didn’t like the idea that women came with two legs … and was scandalized when women wore trousers – were bifurcated, so to speak. Seeing the shape of a woman’s stockinged leg? Shocking! A woman in trousers wasn’t quite respectable, even if she wasn’t showing an inch of skin more than if she was wearing skirts. Just the thought of two female legs was titillating.

A woman who wanted to master a martial art, like Bartitsu or Jiu-jitsu, was constricted by her skirts. Girls could learn to defend themselves in feminine dress, but it gave an opponent an advantage over them, because the skirts were an extra something an opponent could catch hold of. It was only sensible that to wear suitable clothing when doing martial arts. However, this was an era that equated a woman’s freedom of dress the possibility she might entertain freedom of thought as well, which conversely would turn men into wimps, as can be seen by the cartoon below.

You’ve all heard the saying “She wears the pants in the family.” Why is a woman wearing pants that derogatory to start with? How does the wearing of pants confer power? Because pants equates with freedom!

In my Steampunk novel, I make a point of dressing my female protagonist in trousers as often as I can. Not so she can be ‘saucy’ or shocking, but just so she can get the job done without a fuss.

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Filed under Bartitsu, History, Steampunk Feminist, Suffragettes, writing

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