The new American girl glides into a new century on the 1899 cover of Puck magazine. She holds onto her hat, her skirts flapping and duster billowing out behind her, a measure of her velocity. She smiles in a frank and carefree way, as Puck pushes her from behind.
Frank Nankiwell‘s marvelous drawing captures the freedom and athleticism that the American girl of this era was enjoying. Though her clothes look constraining to a modern eye, in relation to fashions that had come before, her garb was practical, masculine, and revealingly form-fitting.
In the Gay 1890s, as horizons for women broadened, their increasing physicality prompted dramatic changes in the clothing they favored. Women began wearing shirtwaists and belts borrowed from men’s fashions. Their bell-like skirts hugged their hips and thighs, before flaring out dramatically above the knee. The length was short enough to reveal ankles and leave feet more free. So dressed, the American woman moved faster and more freely, increasingly visible on skates, on bicycles, and in automobiles.
THE BICYCLE possessed some kind of magic, its mute presence transforming American society. Originally known as a velocipede, the bicycle had been around since the early nineteenth century, but only after 1890 did the contraption become safer and gain popularity throughout the States as something associated with freedom and pleasure. Continue reading →
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.
Sheet 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.
Four girls with ice skates walk down a street in New York’s Chinatown. It’s 1965, Mott Street, a sunny day—and late April, which heightens the incongruity of what we’re seeing. While the setting grounds them to their roots and history, the girls are American and of the moment, with loose hair styles, jackets, and dungarees. The photographer, Ed Ford of the New York World Telegram & Sun, captured a carefree, top-of-the-world moment effectively.
Since ice skating originated in Northern Europe and developed as a result of American and European innovations, the ice skates are a token of westernization (as well as a capacity to have fun).
In the 1850s, a rage for dancing and ice-skating swept America. Both the ball room and the surface of an icy pond offered antebellum northerners a way to escape the stiff conventionality of everyday society and discover different ways of moving and being.
This beautiful old print, a 1859 view of skaters on Jamaica Pond outside Boston, captures this well. Look closely and you may see a lady with a hockey stick.
The hazards of the ice justified the suspension of some proprieties. Top hats flew as gentlemen lost their dignity. Beneath the ladies’ long, voluminous skirts, their calves and ankles were plainly showing. Shocking!
While some women in the picture are wearing the floor-length skirts typical of the time, others are wearing shorter skating skirts which were more novel, freer and more daring.