Monday, March 28, 2011

April 5, 1899 --- Turned Away at the Inn

In a major disappointment to the "Rational Dress" movement, an Ockham innkeeper is found not guilty of "willfully and unlawfully neglecting and refusing to serve victuals" to Lady Harberton.

A Viscount's wife, Lady Harberton had been cycling in Surrey when she stopped for a midday tea at the Hautboy Hotel.  Her Ladyship was "clad from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet" in so-called "rational dress", i.e. pants.  Martha Sprague, the hotel's landlady refused the knickered noblewoman admittance to the coffee-room. Instead, she directed her to a side bar. Lady Harberton found the conditions in the smoky bar, filled with "workmen," to be abominable and insisted upon a table in the coffee-room. "No, not in that dress," came the reply once again.

The issue was no mean one for lady cyclists.  Their magazine Ladies in the Field had warned: "There is ever danger of full long skirts catching in the spokes and bringing the wearer in humiliation and sorrow to the ground." The Viscountess and the Cyclists Touring Club believed they now had the perfect test case and pressed charges. Curiously, The Rational Dress Gazette urged readers not to appear in court in "rational" dress for fear of offending judge or jurymen. The landlady's lawyer insists that she never refused service to Lady Harberton at all, describing the plaintiff as an overly fastidious woman who disliked the smell of smoke and the company of "workmen."  The Hautboy was on the Portsmouth Road which was much-traveled by sailors.  Mrs. Sprague must insist upon her standards; it would be "fatal to her business" were she to admit some of the women who plied the road in their "skin-tights." Lady Harberton's lawyer, Lord Coleridge predicted such attire would soon be commonplace and the attitudes of the innkeeper would be scoffed at as "purblind and perverted."

The all-male jury acquitted the doughty Mrs. Sprague within minutes. The Times found some amusement out of the discomfiture of the dress reformers, agreeing with the good landlady, that, with some women, "it is even possible to look too nice."

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