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.
For further information click here and here.

This is the sixth in an occasional series on ice-skating.  Click here to read from the beginning.

Ice skates circa 1850

Ice skates (1840-59) from the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

This pair of American-made ice skates, dating from 1840-1859, is part of the collection of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The ice skaters I’ve been writing about lately would have been wearing skates similar to these.

While these skates were of a style that had been used for centuries, skate design was on the cusp of dramatic change.  The 1850s saw many innovations, as ice-skating boomed in popularity.  Many different styles of clip-on and strap-on skates were being brought to market, as makers vied to make skates stronger, faster, and more stable.  The toe pick and the elongated blade extending beyond the back of the skate, both features of modern figure skates, hadn’t yet been thought of.  Stopping or turning in these old skates could be tricky!  Note the nail sticking up from the platform of the skate, which embedded itself in the heel of the wearer’s shoe, as a means of making the skate more stable.

American ice skates (1840-60), from the website "Skating ahead of the Curve"

Skating ahead of the Curve documents the newfangled skates being made at the time.  These skates, dating from 1840-60, have taken a leap forward in material and design.  Made mainly of metal, including cast steel, they feature a heel cup and thick leather straps that would have attached firmly to a boot or shoe.

American ice skates (1840-60), from the website "Skating ahead of the Curve"

The heel cup is decorated with a skating scene.

For more on 19th-century skates and skating,
see “Ice Skating in the 1860s: A Fashion and a Passion,”
a wonderful article by Betty Hughes.
This is the fourth in an occasional series on ice-skating.  Click here to read from the beginning.

Philadelphia on ice

Colorful lithograph showing skaters crowding the ice near the Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1856.
The winter of 1856 was one of the coldest in the nineteenth century.  It was so cold that the Ohio River froze solid from bank to bank, creating a path for southern slaves to escape, just as Harriet Beecher Stove had envisioned in Uncle Tom’s Cabin two years before.  Elsewhere, the long stretches of cold weather created favorable conditions for Americans’ new favorite pastime, ice-skating, then enjoying great burst of popularity.

This scene, of city-dwellers crowding the ice on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, furnishes a gauge of the strength of the trend.  For though ice skating had been practiced for centuries, until 1850, skate blades were crafted only of wood or bone.  A Philadelphia businessman, Edward W Bushnell, is credited with revolutionizing the sport of skating, by being the first to manufacture a blade of steel.  Strapped and clamped to the bottoms of shoes, the sharp metal blades gave skaters unprecedented speed and control.

The excitement was considerable as the innovation took hold.  The Quakers of Philadelphia had always carried on their hereditary skating traditions, but steel skates led to many novelties.  By the time lithographer James Fuller Queen captured this scene, many men and boys had paid up for the new skates, which were very expensive at $30 a pair.  Most of the ladies and townspeople pictured are spectators only, standing still as bold skaters thread their way through the crowd.

According to John Frederick Lewis, author of Skating and the Philadelphia Skating Club (1895), a Miss Van Dyke, daughter of James C Van Dyke, US attorney for Philadelphia, was the first woman in Philadelphia to appear on skates; she “rapidly became skillful and expert” in 1854.  Other ladies followed her lead, making skating fashionable, once concerns about safety and possible harassment from ruffians had been cleared away.

Image: from this source.
Click on the image for a much larger view.

This is the third in an occasional series on ice-skating.  Click here to go to the first post.