The straitjacket escape began as a challenge from the police when Houdini was performing his famous handcuffs act. A regulation straitjacket is made of heavy canvas, reinforced with leather with a collar, cuffs and various straps. The cuffs do not allow the hands to be free, but instead resemble elongated bags, ending in leather straps that wrap around the body. Its purpose is to restrain the strongest and most violent criminals or insane people.
From the moment he put on the straitjacket, Houdini’s goal was to obtain slack by gripping as much loose cloth as possible. Chest expansion was also important. Houdini had the ability to expand his chest to enormous proportions, giving him even more slack when he let the air out of his chest. Most important, was the placement of his arms. Houdini would cross, not fold, his arms. This allowed him to work his arms over his head, the upper arm first. However, if forced to cross his arms, Houdini could dislocate one or both of his shoulders in order to provide the slack he needed to escape. Once loosened, the arms were brought in front of the body so the buckles of the sleeves could be undone with the teeth. Next, the hands, working beneath the canvas, would unhook the neck and body buckles. Lastly, Houdini would remove the straitjacket from the arms and body by stepping on the ends of the sleeves and giving an upward, backward pull.
Though the initial version of the straitjacket escape caused a stir, Houdini gained even more fame when he began to perform this trick while suspended upside down and bound at the ankles. In a way, hanging upside down was actually helpful to Houdini. During this time, he was able to shorten the trick from thirty minutes to only three. Being upside down made it easier for Houdini to work his arms over his head. In addition, he used a special straitjacket for this new version of the escape. This “trick” jacket had overlong sleeves and only single straps looped around the neck, chest and body. This insured slack for the arms and let Houdini free himself more quickly.