‘Alexandra limp’: meaning and origin

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the name Alexandra was used to form compounds designating things popularised by, or associated with, Alexandra of Denmark (1844-1925), consort of Edward VII (1841-1910), who reigned from 1901 to 1910.

For example, Alexandra curl designated a long, often artificial, ringlet or curl, especially one dropping from behind one ear and over the shoulder, popularised by Alexandra. The following definition and illustration are from An Illustrated Dictionary of Hairdressing & Wigmaking (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1989), by James Stevens Cox:

ALEXANDRA CURL A long spiral drop curl usually worn behind the ear; named after Her Royal Highness Alexandra, Princess of Wales, later Queen of Edward VII, who wore these curls and greatly influenced fashion.

315 Style of the Second Empire (French), showing Alexandra curls

The earliest occurrence of Alexandra curl that I have found is from the following advertisement, published in The Illustrated London News (London, England) of Saturday 14th March 1863:

TO LADIES.—The Alexandra Curls, from 2s. each. Beautiful Hair Plaits, in all colours and lengths, from 2s. 6d. each. Upwards of 100 always ready for wear. Plaited devices for the back hair, quite new, from 7s. 6d., can be forwarded secure by post to any part. A larger assortment of Ornamental Hair, and cheaper than any other House. Lists of Prices sent free on application to STACEY and CO., Hair Importers and Manufacturers, 45, Cranbourn-street, W.C., London.

The oddest compound was Alexandra limp, designating a limping gait affected by some members of fashionable society in imitation of Alexandra, who developed a limp after contracting rheumatic fever in 1867.

The earliest occurrence of Alexandra limp that I have found is from Freaks of Fashion, by ‘Rupert’, published in The South London Press (London, England) of Saturday 13th November 1869:

Unequalled in sad suggestiveness is an incident which comes to us from Paris. The body of a girl, one of the outcasts of the streets, was the other day fished out of the Seine, and the poor wretch was with her dead hand tightly grasping a peacock’s feather! To the last, to the grim end of her miserable career, she had clung to the skirts of fashion, and died true to one of its latest follies. The ladies of Paris, who, a year ago, went about with “grandmother’s sticks” in their hands, have this season substituted the feathers of the peacock—each bearing one; and to such an extent has this prevailed that it is said every unhappy bird in France is stalking about denuded of its tail—bare and ghastly. An odd freak of fashion this, yet not without its use, or without some warrant for its adoption. It seems that the use of cosmetics has so increased, the cheeks and lips of the ladies are so plastered over and encrusted with messes of one sort and another, that during the summer time it was found difficult to keep off the flies, and so some ingenious personage introduced the use of the peacock feather for that purpose, just as in the last century, when white wigs of enormous height were worn, the fair wearers carried little silver sticks, hung by their sides, to be used in the discharge of that office which Bottom besought Peaseblossom to perform for him. In a word—for scratching their heads! Of course, a fashion once set must be followed even by those who have little occasion to adopt it, and in whose hands it becomes a gross absurdity. So, the wretched wanderer of the Paris streets felt it incumbent on her to be in the mode, and to take her feather with her into her last bath, clutching at it in the moment of desperation in which she “jumped the world to come.”
Odd as it seems, this feather fashion is among the most defensible of the follies of this year. It is pure common-sense in comparison with the injunctions laid down in the spring for wearing the mouth! In the fashion-books we found it gravely stated that “the mouth is now worn slightly open—the lips just parted.” And in a little while all the young ladies were running about with a half-simper, an incipient idiotic grin which suited some who had a natural tendency in that direction, but utterly spoiled many who had claims on the score of good looks. Next in succession comes the “Grecian bend,” that peculiar ducking sort of walk which is necessitated by tight-lacing and high heels, and of which it may be confidently asserted that the Greeks knew nothing. No; they could not have had an idea of it, for though the Greek ladies followed the fashions, wore wigs, painted, dyed eyebrows and eyelids, used depilatories and washes, they had reverence for the human figure, and could never have been induced to regard the wasp as the standard of natural beauty, or see that anything was to be gained by tripping along on one’s toes, the heels being elevated for that express purpose. […]
But the fashion that really does not admit of defence is one, the news of which reaches us from Scarborough. There the ladies have adopted “The Alexandra Limp.” And what, it will be asked, is the Alexandra limp? Simply this. The recent indisposition of the Princess of Wales—rheumatics in the knee—has slightly affected her walking. It does not quite amount to a limp; but something of the sort. This has been voted “charming” by a lot of noodles, and is being imitated. To effect the desirable object of making themselves appear lame, the young ladies are wearing boots which do not match, one boot having a heel and the other having none! This causes them to limp in walking, and probably the folly of fashion was never carried to a greater extent. Fortunately, this will not be adopted by the sensible girls, and while we pity the noodles, and laugh at the limpers, these freaks serve one good, wholesome purpose—they enable us to discriminate at a glance between the wise and the foolish virgins, and that is, perhaps, the best justification Fashion can receive at our hands.

The following definitions are from A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant: Embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian Slang, Pidgin English, Tinkers’ Jargon and Other Irregular Phraseology (Printed for subscribers only at the Ballantyne Press, 1889), compiled and edited by Albert Barrère and Charles G. Leland:

Alexandra limp, the (common), a fashionable craze, resulting from a toadying imitation of a certain lady well known in society who walks with a slight limp.
Bend (common), “that’s  above my bend,” i.e., beyond my power, too expensive or too difficult to perform (Hotten *). This has nothing in common with the “Grecian bend,” an affected style of walking assumed by some ladies as a flattery to royalty, in keeping with the “Alexandra limp.”
Grecian bend (society), peculiar bend given to the body by means of a large bustle and high-heeled boots. The term is by no means new. It was used in the “Etonian” more than half a century back. “In person he was of the common size, with something of the Grecian bend, contracted doubtless from sedentary habits.”

* This refers to the English publisher and author John Camden Hotten (1832-1873), who, in 1859, produced the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words.

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