A Century Of Figure Skating Fashion, Part One (1860-1880)

Perhaps channelling my inner Joan Rivers, my next blog idea came to me almost like an Eureka moment: write about the history of figure skating fashion! I remembered reading a particularly excellent chapter on that very topic in Mary Louise Adams' "Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits Of Sport" so I pulled the book off the shelf, reread a good portion of chapter eight and immediately got discouraged. Adams had nailed it. Little more was to be said on the matter and many excellent points I never could have put together were already pulled together with a keen sense of context. What more was there to write? The next morning as I was walking to work, I thought back on the topic and Adams' book and said to myself, "you know what? People have been skating for centuries. Surely there's more out there I can dust off and share on the topic of figure skating fashion." Lo and behold, after hours of sifting through old books, magazines and newspapers, I had enough for a three-part blog covering one hundred years!

There's no Lulu Lemon in this three-parter, honey. We will get things started with the era from the 1860's to the 1880's in part one, move on to the 1890's to the 1920's in part two and cover the 1930's through 1960's in part three. Then we'll stop right there, basically because when you make it to the end of the sixties in skating history, you just get sidetracked by Peggy Fleming's gorgeous skating and you completely lose focus. Alright! So grab yourselves a nice glass of (Long Island) iced tea and a say something hat, we're going to get all nineteenth century skating fashion up in here!:


I actually lied. We're going to start by getting a little context as to the formality of skating fashion back in the seventeenth century. Adern Holt's 1896 book Fancy Dresses Described; Or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls described an imagination of a seventeenth century ice skating costume as such: "Skating costume of the 17th century is as follows: Short satin skirt, long tunic, turned up all around the waist; long pointed bodice, sleeves with one puff, and then two white satin puffs to wrist; satin fur-lined muff, fur tippets, hood lined with a colour, gauze veil." As we know, ice skating was long a source of recreation and amusement of society's upper crust and Holt's imagination of what a female skater in a royal court might have worn back then probably wasn't too far off. Going forward in time to the start of our journey through figure skating fashion in the 1860's, we'll definitely learn just how formal skating fashion was back then. 

THE 1860'S

Good old Henry Eugene Vandervell! The staunch advocate of the stiff English Style of skating and inventor of the Counter And Bracket Turns was one of the first authors to approach the topic of skating fashion in print that we know of. In "A system of figure-skating, the theory and practice as developed in England", Vandervell wrote that "in considering how a skater should be attired, we have to observe that fashion and custom have not sanctioned, as in other athletic pastimes, a special dress for him, the probable reason being that men rush to the ice before and after business hours, and any peculiar (though comfortable) costume would thus be inconvenient. We need hardly remark that the white cravat, swallow-tailed coat, and pantaloons (the old dress of the Skating Club) are things of the past. We may also remark that, when a man is about to take violent exercise, no matter what the temperature may be, he, if possible, divests himself with great eagerness of all clothing likely to impede him. Numerous are the instances of this fact, from the peaceful rivalry of rustic games and sports to the deadly land and sea fights. Whilst some, perhaps, may regret the want of a more suitable dress for skating in than that in daily use they cannot deny that its absence adds much to the popularity of the art, as it enables all to participate in it. Whilst conforming, then, to the fashion of the day, let the skater take care that his clothes are well fitted, so that the action of the arms and legs is not interfered with. The coat, such as the Beaufort, with rounded skirts and buttoned across the chest to prevent the flapping of the said skirts, will do very well, and better indeed than the frock coat, though, perhaps, not so well as the dress coat. We also recommend a warm vest, flannel shirt, and under jersey, with the trousers tight round the waist, whatever fashion is given to the legs, ordinary warm drawers, and socks of cotton, merino, or silk. The overcoat should be used for coming and going, and standing still, but not when skating, as it is not only unnecessary but apt to make the skater so warm that standing still for a few minutes even may give a chill that will cause a cold." In this passage, Vandervell references "the white cravat, swallow-tailed coat and pantaloons" as the former attire of The Skating Club, London's premiere skating club established back in 1830. Though describing an extremely formal dress that would (by later standards) been considered an impediment to movement himself, even he acknowledges the need for freedom of movement. It's all in relative terms. Although Vandervell doesn't address female skating fashion in the 1860's, the 1863 Magazine "London Society: An Illustrated Magazine Of Light And Amusing Literature For The Hours Of Relaxation, Volume III" most certainly does. The unnamed author wrote: "Of course the costume must be adapted to the occasion, and a lady can no more skate while encaged in the modern fashionable wire-work, than she can ride while surrounded with those mysterious and voluminous productions of the ironmonger. There are few dresses more thoroughly become than the riding habit, and the best skating dress is neither more nor less than a riding habit with short skirts." If the men in the 1860's had it bad, the women in wire with their corsets and bustles certainly had it much worse.

Meanwhile in America at the United States' first skating club, The Philadelphia Skating Club, the exact same fashion employed across the ocean in England at The Skating Club had been previously adopted and was now growing out of fashion. Nigel Brown in "Ice-Skating: A History", noted that at the Philadelphia Skating Club (founded in 1849) dress was "an important factor, and like the Gilets Rouge, uniformity was essential, and up until 1865, the top hat, swallow-tailed coat, pantaloons and white tie were the official costume for figure-skating in the club." American author Edward Gill, in his 1867 book "The Skater's Manual, A Complete Guide To The Art of Skating" spoke of the new interest in freedom of movement and fashion: "Let your dress fit closely, but at the same time be of sufficient ease to insure freedom of notion. Neither skirts to coats nor full trousers should be worn. Let flannel be worn next to the skin by the delicate, and an extra undergarment by the robust. Let the chest be well defended against the cold. A piece of brown paper laid between the waistcoat and shirt is a cheap chest protector, or use one of Andrew Peck & Co.'s improved chest protectors, which is worn next the skin." That last bit totally felt like a plug for SequinQueen.com on RuPaul's Drag Race... "That's AndrewPeckAndCosImprovedChestProtectors.com!"

I think the best account of 1860's figure skating fashion that really speaks to the acknowledgement that being overdressed was not going to help your skating or cause any would have to be a lengthy passage from Frank Swift and Marvin R. Clark's 1868 book "The Skater's Textbook": "In dressing, it must be remembered that the body requires less covering when exercising than is required when in
repose. Overconsiderate people are very liable to err in this respect, to the detriment of health. No exercise promotes perspiration so profusely and uniformly as skating ; it is, therefore, necessary when at rest, after exercise, that extra clothing be placed upon the body while remaining in the cold atmosphere. The skater should be warmly clothed, but not overburdened with clothing. Overcoats, cloaks, shawls, muffs, furs, and hoop-skirts should be discarded by the skater, as not only useless and incumbering the free movement of the body, but, by promoting a too profuse perspiration, endangering the health. Heavy flannels should be worn next the skin, as they absorb the perspiration more rapidly than any other material, and the wearer is less liable to colds. Skating does not necessitate any unusual change in the dress; men and boys should be dressed as usual in the winter season, leaving off the overcoat; women and girls should wear dresses reaching to the ankle only, as a long dress will hamper the movement, and often throw the skater. Unless a woman desires to make a display of her motive power, she will discard hoops altogether in skating, and as they are opposed to graceful movement, they should not be worn. The limbs should be unincumbered, to allow their free use, and therefore the skater's dress should be as loose as consistent with comfort and reason. Corsets are very injurious during the hours of exercise, and should not be worn by the skater if she has any regard for her health, as they prevent respiration and are dangerous in falls. Frequent bathing is essential, especially to those who skate frequently, and as a precaution against colds it is advisable to bathe the limbs before skating. We wish to impress upon the mind of the skater one very important precaution, which should be remembered at all times: Never sit down nor stand in repose in the cold air when overheated, unless extra clothing is placed upon the body, and not even then if avoidable. Colds are much more dangerous to the system than any disease, and the liability to cold should be avoided by every precaution in our power. Remember, therefore, never sit down nor stand in repose when overheated." Among the many suggestions of the authors is an obvious concern that skaters be appropriately dressed for outdoor exercise in the cold weather, and I think you'll find in all three parts of this blog that weather was absolutely on the minds of skaters before indoor rinks became the vogue... and that the transition certainly played a huge role in dictating skating fashion.

Jackson Haines

Before we move on to the swinging seventies - the swinging 1870's, that is - I want to look briefly at two figures who served in complete juxtaposition to everything we have just learned about 1860's skating fashion. Laughing in the face of the staid, cold fashion sense of his era, Jackson Haines exhibitions in lavish, theatrical costumes that were considered by many as more suited to a pantomime than an ice rink. T.D. Richardson wrote that "he was wont to give his exhibitions in the most varied Haines costumes. We see him at different times disguised as a Russian, a prince of fairyland, a lady, and even as a bear." Though unproven, it's conceivable that high society types in both England and America (mad hatters and wire-bound high society ladies alike) might have snubbed someone who simply was not attired appropriately to join their stuffy parties. Another figure whose fashion choices were at odds with the trends of this era was roller and ice skating star Carrie Augusta Moore, who performed in a blouse, matching knee-length trousers and white tights, which really would have been quite scandalous at the time for a woman. Society may certainly embrace diversity in fashion today, but rebellion wasn't just frowned upon back then. It was by many looked upon as a challenge to order and decorum... and they wouldn't have been having that one bit!

THE 1870'S

What makes the fact that Haines' theatrical costuming might have been unappreciated in England and America during that era so absurd was that in Canada during the 1870's, masquerade skating parties were of course in vogue! The flashier the better, sweetie at these fancy dress ice balls. Scotland's George Anderson, long time president of the Glasgow Skating Club, described the costumes at the Montreal Skating Club's masquerades in his book "The Art Of Skating" thusly: "Over the glittering floor sped dozens of flying figures, circling, skimming, whirling, and intermingling with a new swiftness, the bright and varied colours, the rich and grotesque costumes succeeding each other, or combining with bewildering rapidity and effect. The gentlemen, in addition to the usual characters, introduced some novelties - an owl, a monkey, a monster bottle, a tailor at work on his bench, a boy on horseback, all capital representations, and by good skaters. Among the suits of the ladies were representations of 'Night' and 'Morning', a vivandiere, a habitant's wife, and other characters... The skaters presented both a varied and brilliant appearance, their parts being characterised by that grace and skill of movement bred of long practice." Haines would have fit in perfectly and been the star of any of these spectacles undoubtedly.

Trade card for Ball's Skating Corsets.

By the late 1870's, the skating community was starting to wrap their heads around the fact that the answer to freedom of movement wasn't wearing loose fitting clothing; tighter-fitting wear was the key. In the 1878 book "Swimming, Skating, Rinking And Sleighing: Their Theory And Practice" edited by Captain Crawley, this issue was expounded upon with a terrifying footnote: "As regards to the rest of the costume, it should be as tight-fitting as will allow free play to the limbs, with no coattails flowing behind or impeding your movements. A stout suit with short jacket is the best and most graceful. Nothing of a hard nature, not even a latch-key should be carried in any of the pockets; and then a tumble cannot be very serious. I once witnessed a very melancholy accident owing to the neglect of this caution. A young man who was skating near had a tumble. As it was no uncommon sight on the ice, little attention was paid to him at first, but presently a crowd collected, and it was found that the poor fellow was dying. He carried in the pocket of a long-tailed coat the gimlet he used in putting on his skates; and when he fell, it penetrated the base of his spine." I almost think I should have saved that particular cautionary tale for the next edition of Skate Guard's Hallowe'en Spooktacular!

THE 1880'S

Formality continued to be the order of the day in the 1880's but skaters and authors alike began slowly showing more appreciation for a little flashiness here and there. Richard Lovett's 1887 book "Pictures From Holland" described the costume of Dutch skaters near Rotterdam: "It is too near... to see much of the distinctive peasant dress of Holland. Most of the skaters are attired in costume not dissimilar to that seen in Hyde Park when the Serpentine bears. Here and there a Zeelander or a Frieslander is met with, and the dress of the great majority compares very unfavourably with the picturesque costumes, which fashion alas! is fast beginning to drive out of Holland." In 1889, Ladies' Home Journal advocated for female skaters to go big or go home, suggesting "a very bright costume... of scarlet cloth trimmed with black marten", bonnets with fur and matching collars and trimming, Russian sable, sealskin, Black Persian muffs and my personal favourite... "a jaunty jacket". 

Because the amount of material coming in the next two parts of this three-parter that will take us through a century of figure skating fashion are considerable, I think I will end off part one on a high note with that jaunty jacket! Stay tuned for part two. You don't want to miss it!

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.