A Century Of Figure Skating Fashion, Part Two (1890-1920)

In the first part of this three-parter on figure skating fashion, we hopped in the time machine and looked at how what people wore on the ice evolved in the 1860's, 1870's and 1880's. In part two, we're going to leave no stone unturned as we dredge through history and try to understand the unique role that the clothing people wore while skating in the 1890's, 1900's, 1910's and 1920's played in the sport's evolution:

THE 1890'S

As we explored in our look at 1880's skating fashion, a more streamlined look (with touches of grandeur) was starting to come into vogue, although attire was still very formal in nature. The mention of men wearing tights became more prevalent in 1890's skating literature, however safety and dressing for the weather continued to be concerns.

In the 1892 book "Skating", T. Maxwell Witham wrote of the evolution of skating fashions in England, "the members of the Skating Club affect, while skating, the costume of gentleman dressed for a Fête, namely, black coats and tall hats... There is no doubt that a short coat, knickerbockers, and a low hat form a very comfortable dress for skating in; and although it would look out of place on the club rink, it is the most natural attire for a country pond. Whatever costume be worn, skaters should remember that they are taking strong exercise in cold weather, and then after taking strong exercise in cold weather, and that after skating continuously for say twenty minutes and so getting hot... therefore the underclothing should be warm and thick, or severe chill may ensue. I feel a natural diffidence in making any observation of ladies' costume, but it is evident for safety's sake that the dress should be sufficiently short to avoid catching the skate when the skater is leaning over on an edge; and from an artistic point of view I think that the border or fur, or the heavy flounce sometimes worn at the bottom of the dress, detracts from the graceful swing which it assumes as the various curves are skated."

THE 1900'S

As we know, at the turn of the century there was a bona fide battle between proponents of the English and Continental (or International) Styles and one of the biggest advocates for England adopting the Continental Style was of course Edgar Syers.

Knowing this, it's really no surprise that in "The Book Of Winter Sports" (published in 1908), he called for an end to the top hats and tails of the rigid English Style: "The choice of a suitable costume is somewhat difficult; English plates from 1850 to 1898 show us skaters in silk hats and frock coats, which recall the remarkable pictures which were the wonder of our childhood and still delight us, where sportsmen are depicted with gigantic beaver hats (quizzically known as 'castors'), stiff duck trousers, and tight braces, playing cricket, rowing in 'wager boats' and 'funnys', or otherwise engaged in athletic pursuits. The frock coat and top hat must be dismissed; knickerbockers and stockings, particularly if the former are baggy, are deplorably ugly ; trousers are not much better, and the combination of riding breeches and puttees, beloved of the novice, is not to be thought of. Heavy and thick clothing should be avoided, warm, light, and windproof materials should be worn for out of-door skating." During the heyday of skating in Switzerland during that era, there would have been a great contrast in fashion between what the English and Continental skaters were wearing. The styles of skating and fashion both definitely would have set the male skaters apart; trousers and tights would have been a significant contrast.

Female skating fashions in the 1900's remained largely the same across the board. Women wore elegant long dresses and petticoats made of rough tweed, homespun, heavy ribbed serge, cheviot, camel's hair cloth, corduroy and accessorized with hats and turbans made of brown mink, fox or gray squirrel. Fine thread veils were not uncommon. At the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, Olympic Gold Medallist Anna Hübler wore, according to Amanda Schweinbenz in her essay "Not Just Early Olympic Fashion Statements: Bathing Suits, Uniforms, and Sportswear", an ankle length wool skirt, high-collared white blouse and a say something hat.

THE 1910'S

By the second decade of the twentieth century, 'ladies pages' of newspapers from London to New York were filled with clever suggestions for women's skating costumes. Velveteen dresses with Godet flare collars and bell cuffed sleeves of fur, frocks of chiffon velvet with Hudson seal (dyed muskrat) pellerine, colored Georgette crepes with high funnel collars and borders of fur and Bouverie Capes in Scotch mole were all suggested as 'smart skating fashions' when accompanied by angora caps and heavy elderdown mittens. Making a grand impression at a skating rink was simply the thing to do, and many social climbers succeeded in stunning fashion.

However, it was also in the 1910's that a documented case began to made by some of the era's top female skaters for change in women's skating fashion. In George H. Browne's "The Handbook Of Skating For Use On The Ice", Olympic Gold Medallist Madge Syers wrote, "The important question of costume should be carefully considered. A skirt must always be an impediment, particularly when there is a wind; therefore, do not hamper yourself unnecessarily by a long or pleated skirt, but choose one short and rather narrow, of a fairly heavy material, cut to hang away from the figure, and weighted with a band of some close fur. [Although] many prefer the appearance of a full skirt, it should not be worn because it is so apt to get under the skate and cause an awkward fall; and it has a most tiresome habit of wrapping around the knees and binding them together. A loose warm blouse and fur toque should be preferred. Nothing should be worn which restricts the movements. No one will ever learn to skate who is tightly laced. This foolish habit is both dangerous to health and the cause of many bad falls. The waist must be free, so that the muscles have full play. Boots should be of soft calf, never of patent leather; they should be rather high and fit closely."

Madge Syers and Charlotte Oelschlägel

Professional skater Charlotte Oelschlägel offered a much more visionary perspective on female skating fashion in the 1916 "Hippodrome Skating Book": "The costume for skating may now include practically all varieties of design and material, ranging from silk to leather, the latest fad. Nowhere can a woman look prettier and nowhere can she look less attractive than on the ice. Some items are essential, however. The material of the skating costume ought to be something which does not bulk up, something which falls into naturally graceful curves and straightens out quickly. An undergarment of silk or satin in the form of a petticoat, bloomers or knickerbockers is important in skating any difficult or spectacular figures, since it serves to keep the gown from bunching around the legs. The skirt should be comparatively snug around the hips and free, even slightly flaring, around the edge. Fur bands around the edge of the skirt give an air of appropriateness. The new unrestrained and somewhat bold way of skating necessitates skirts which permit freedom in the swinging and spread of the legs. A petticoat or short skirt of thin woven elastic goods, especially if of silk, makes an ideal undergarment for the skater, whether beginner or expert. The length of the skirt should be about to the tops of the skating shoes. Sensible costumes are now being adopted by the best skaters of all countries. One should as soon think of swimming in a long skirt as skating in one. The skirt which reaches to the middle of the calf will be found both comfortable and graceful. My skating costume at the Hippodrome is probably regarded as very daring, but I wish every woman who skates might test for herself how comfortable it is. There is a stimulus in suitable costumes which it is impossible to get any other way. Skating is worth a pretty and appropriate costume, and such a costume will last for years and be always in style." Madge and Charlotte's differing views on female skating fashion during this era also offer a rare glimpse at the contrast in the fashion of amateur and professional skaters during this pioneering period.

As men's skating fashion evolved in Europe with the growing acceptance of the Continental Style, we know that freedom of movement and tighter fitting wear continued to become the focus in North America as well. Frederick R. Toombs advised men not to wear garters or suspenders in contests and noted that "full length tights are always preferable." In his 1913 book "The Art Of Skating", Irving Brokaw suggested that "the skater must adopt the costume which experience and wisdom has taught to be the most serviceable for all-round use. For general skating almost any costume may be worn, providing that the coat or jacket is rather short and more or less tightfitting, so as not to impede the movements of the skater; but, of course, knickerbockers, which must be rather tight-fitting about the knee, are to be recommended for general practice, as they are far more comfortable to skate in than the long trousers, and give a feeling of freedom which is so desirable. For competitions or tests, where the skater wishes to make as good an impression as possible before critical judges, a costume consisting of a tightfitting coat or jacket, rather short, with the collar and front often trimmed with Astrakan fur, or sometimes the coat decorated with braid, after the military fashion. A neat felt hat, or cap made of fur or dark cloth. For the limbs, skating full tights or black, tight-fitting knickerbockers, with leather leggings fitting down over the ankles coming from just below the knee. For general exhibitions, the skater should study the style of costume which is most suitable for himself. The main thing is not to have the jacket too long or loose fitting, as this gives an awkward and ungainly appearance to even the most graceful of skaters."

THE 1920'S

Reflecting on 1920's skating fashion, the March 7, 1941 Ottawa Citizen noted that "fifteen years ago, costumes were different. Sateen was the favoured material for the costumes, good, dependable sateen. Sleeves were long, for one might have frozen to death in shorter ones. Dresses were long, too, for the same reason." Let's hear what many of the eminent authors of figure skating texts of this generation had to say on the subject!

Some offered a fairly traditional view for the time, turning their nose up at excess. In "Figure Skating Simplified For Beginners", Major G. Bailey wrote that "there is a wide difference in the choice which may be adopted. There is the skintight costume which makes the skater appear like a snake; or the wide bloomer costume of the 'plus four ' variety. For ladies the selection is infinite, which from their point of view should be satisfactory, but if a mere man may be allowed to give a word of advice, although knickers and jumper maybe all very well, and in fact the more suitable kits for skiing or bobbing, they do not look becoming for ladies on the ice rink. Of course you will frequently meet a certain class of people who seem to have a different costume for every hour of the day, and occasionally make their appearance on the rink as if they had mistaken it for a pantomime, but if they prefer this form of amusement rather than sport that is their affair, and as they afford 'copy' for the society magazines when recording winter sports events, it is all for the good of trade." In 1921, Bror Meyer wrote in his book "Skating With Bror Meyer" that for men, wearing "a light lounge jacket with tight-fitting knickers is very suitable, but the coat should not be very long. In any event, the costume should not be heavy and it is advisable to avoid long trousers as the skates may easily catch therein. For competitions, a short, well-fitting coat (black) with black tights give the best appearance. Ladies should under no circumstances wear a skirt which is either long or heavy, and very close-fitting articles of apparel should be avoided, as they necessarily curtail any free action."

Others had a more open mind. In 1921, James A. Cruickshank wrote of the evolution of women's skating fashion thusly: "In the manner of costume there is wide range of choice. A reasonably full skirt, comparatively short, is essential. Its length depends upon the height and figure of the wearer, but it should not be longer than the tops of the skating shoes nor shorter than the middle of the calf of the leg. The material may vary all the way from leather to sheer silk. Some of the costumes worn by the best women skaters of New York are simple and others elaborate... In general it is true that the same costume is not suited to both indoor and outdoor skating. The chief requirements in a skating costume are freedom from bulkiness in involved movements and flowing lines in the big curves. To aid in these results silk or satin bloomers are generally worn over some skirt material which is not too stiff to take graceful lines during athletic movements. Leather had some vogue in the fashion pages of the magazines, but very little among expert skaters; few materials could be more inappropriate. Silk sweaters, if not too long, lend themselves very well to good appearance on skates and women of good figure find one-piece costumes, of the Princess type, well suited to the sport. The latter design of skating costume is very popular among many of the best amateur women skaters of Europe. Sensible, suitable skating costumes are not subject to caprices of fashion and may be used for several seasons. Fur around the bottom of the skirt may be the correct style, but it does not add to the grace of a skating costume; in fact, the simpler the lines of the skirt the better they fit into a general impression of bodily grace. Of course, the costume for exhibition skating and ice ballets is a matter of individual taste and the requirements of the occasion." 

Sonja Henie

Although Sonja Henie often got the credit for the raising of the hemline in women's figure skating dresses, skaters like Herma Plank-Szabó and Andrée (Joly) Brunet were among a small group of competitive skaters who predated her in the introduction of shorter skirts. A handful of women in St. Moritz and Davos pushed boundaries, wearing knickerbockers or pants instead of skirts.

At the 1928 Olympics in St. Moritz, Sonja Henie wasn't alone by any means in the short skirt department. The February 9, 1928 edition of the Prescott Evening Courier noted that "the petite Norwegian, Sonja Henie, with yellow skirt two inches above the knee appears to be a favorite with Miss [Beatrix] Loughran's knee high dark blue second and the French girls [Andrée Brunet] extremely abbreviated red last... 'I just want to be comfortable,' Miss Loughran said, when queried as to the length of her skirt."

Andrée Joly and Pierre Brunet

Whoever did it first or best aside, Nigel Brown "Ice-Skating: A History" noted Sonja Henie's contribution to skating fashion history in the late twenties: "Apart from remodelling women's skating, she 'refashioned' it as well. The athletic element she introduced into skating could not be performed with ankle-length skirts and wide hats. Sonja Henie brought in the short skirt which enabled girl skaters to indulge in any movement unhampered." Sporting white skates and shorter dresses, all designed by her mother, Henie was the poster child in ushering in of a new era in skating fashion... and continued to push boundaries in this department throughout her professional career. She wasn't the only one though... France's Andrée (Joly) Brunet dared to wear black tights to match her partner's costume... which certainly would have shocked many during that period.

Andrée Joly posing for French fashion ads. Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In perhaps the most colourful (literally) of the three parts of this examination of a century of skating fashion history, we will look at the fashions of the 1930's, 1940's, 1950's and 1960's in the conclusion of this series. Don't miss it because one of the sport's most colourful characters, Maribel Vinson, will be returning to the blog to take us to school!

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.