It’s a leap year. This fact probably hasn’t escaped you. If it has, make the most of your double dose of St David’s Day daffodils. As I’ve mentioned before, the 29th February was traditionally a date when convention was overturned and a woman was allowed to propose to the man of her choice, but only (according to one source*) if the woman in question was wearing red petticoats.
I hadn’t heard about the red-petticoat proviso before today, nor the price any chosen man was obliged to pay if he wished to decline: a pair of gloves for Easter, or a silk gown.
Reference to red petticoats always takes me back to that scene in The Railway Children (the flannel petticoats portion is about 7 minutes 20 seconds in). Flannel was a soft plain- or twill-weave wool or cotton cloth used for underwear, especially petticoats. There’s a scarlet wool version available to American re-enactors over here (you have to scroll down quite a way). Red flannel petticoats were very much in vogue in the 1860s (Queen Victoria may have favoured them) and remained popular throughout the rest of the Victorian period. But they tended to be bulky and by the 1890s were considered more functional than fashionable. Their appearance in E. Nesbitt’s 1906 storyline (worn by children who find them hot and cumbersome, and readily tear them up to avert disaster) reflects a certain humdrum utility. Incidentally, Edith Nesbitt overturned a few social norms herself; she was a political activist who cut her hair short, took up smoking, got married when 7 months pregnant, and may have had an affair with George Bernard Shaw – though not necessarily in that order.
I hope that summoning up the mental image of Jenny Agutter de-petticoating herself before swooning on a railway track has made any male readers of this blog (in the unlikely event that they exist) very happy. I also hope that you enjoy your leap day, ladies. Please remember to propose responsibly.
* Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem by Quentin Cooper & Paul Sullivan, Bloomsbury, 1994
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