Thanks to ice-skating, ladies’ skirts rise

"The Gal with the Balmoral" (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The ice-skating craze that swept the northern US in the 1850s cracked the shell of stiff propriety imprisoning respectable women then.  Normally, women were obliged to swaddle themselves in yards and yards of fabric, to garb themselves in full-length dresses and hoop-skirts completely concealing their lower bodies.  Even equestrianism, which offered upper-class women a welcome chance to get some exercise, entailed riding side-saddle in a skirt that was abnormally long.

When Cole Porter penned the line, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking,” he summed up the 1850s economically.

Ice-skating changed that in a snap—as long as ladies and gentlemen were on the ice.  To step onto a frozen pond was to sail into a world where the rules of genteel behavior were relaxed, strangers mingled, and even women could get a little bit wild.

This opening for women was symbolized in the creation of a special petticoat, designed to be worn as activewear under their skirts.  The Balmoral petticoat, as it was called, was associated with Queen Victoria and the outdoor pastimes—such as skating, hiking, hunting, and riding—that she and her family were known to pursue on their country estate in Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands.

Fashion plates, like this one, and this one, showing skaters in balmoral petticoats, underscore the connection between this article of dress and an active outdoor life.  Women donned such petticoats to skate or, in warmer months, to play croquet.

According to Leimomi Oakes, who writes about historical fashion at dreamstress.com, the balmoral petticoat typically had broad stripes at the bottom.  Sometimes it was made of a colorful plaid.  The petticoat was made to show off, furnishing a flash of color under drawn-up skirts.  While full enough to be worn over a hoop, when it was not, it showed off the wearer’s ankles and legs.  The full effect could be startlingly bold, as in the cover illustration for the song, “The Gal with the Balmoral” (1861).

Women began wearing these shortened skirts as soon as they began learning to skate.  The petticoat was in vogue by 1859, as this print shows.

So, for a brief time in the 1850s and 60s, ice-skating offered a taste of sweet liberation, when women could pin up their skirts and have fun outside.

Rear view of a female ice-skater wearing a short skirt in antebellum timesSheet music cover, circa 1868

Images: Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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This is the sixth in an occasional series on ice-skating.  Click here to read from the beginning.

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