A Swell Party on Ice: 1881

London Skating Rink, 1882, British Museum.

London Skating Rink, 1882, British Museum.

“Clara Belle” has been to the aristocratic rink in the  polo grounds, off Fifth Avenue, and discourses of her skating sisters with her usual freedom. “A swell party,” she says, ” had hired the ice for the afternoon, and were thus enabled to skate without showing their heels to common people. A great deal of solid comfort was in the warm club-house, where the girls awarded the valued privilege of putting on their skates, and that sentimental operation was performed with some newly acquired graces. There was a prosaic attendant at hand to do the work, but he was only called on to serve the older and plainer women. The more attractive girls were beset by volunteers, and one impartial maiden surrendered a foot to each of two admirers. She manifestly enjoyed the experience of having two fellows on their knees before her at a time, and bore the ordeal with unexampled patience, though they were wonderfully slow, and kept her feet in their laps at least ten minutes. Not being shoemakers, they appeared to appreciate the boon, and to be each determined to make it last longer than the other, under the pretense of having trouble with the straps. Finally her big brother came along, and pulled the buckles into place with brutal celerity. She did not say ‘thank you’ to him, and probably didn’t feel like it.”

“The assemblage,” she continues, “was comely as a whole, and had a few good exhibits of American beauty. They wore short street-costumes, in many cases quite elaborate. The fashion used to be to wear plain woolen dresses, made expressly for skating ; but it is not so now. The rage for costly fabrics is too great to be relaxed for even one afternoon. Satins, velvets, and plushes were commoner than wool, and the damage done toilets by falls on the ice was simply immense. An awkward girl, with a weight of one hundred and eighty pounds, sat down with a thud on not less than a full square yard of embossed velvet, and slid over a rough spot, utterly ruining not less than forty dollars worth of surface. But she didn’t care. I only saw one who seemed to be at all mindful of consequences. She wore a skirt of velvet and brocade satin, and evidently was resolved not to spoil it. Whenever she slipped up she managed to fall cat fashion on all fours—and to straddle about until an upright position was regained without having dragged the precious cloth on the ice. She was built like a spider, weighed about ninety pounds, and could strike light, while the other girl went down with a crushing, spreading, sprawling force that was terrific.

“The only distinctive features of dress for the occasion were on the heads and legs. Many of the women wore turban-like caps of fur, plush, or velvet ; but there were a few very coquettish hoods, of the pattern usually worn by little children, but made of handsome dark materials. These were at once warm and stylish. The hair left visible was a frizzle or bang in front, and a careless brush hanging down behind. The effect was killing, particularly if the girl had any claims to beauty of face. A close hood on a round, rosy-cheeked creature, with a bang reaching nearly to her bright eyes, and a tangle of hair flying behind her, made her simply bewitching.”

But Clara reveals the artifices of the sex with most refreshing frankness. Listen:
“One whom I have especially in mind was as artful in reality as she was innocent in aspect. Her arrangement of stockings proved it. She wore a pair of leggings, or over-hose, of knitting or crochet work, reaching from low down on her boots to a little above the ankle. They were red, and therefore conspicuous enough to draw considerable attention to her skating gear. But that was not all. Every high flop of her short skirts revealed light pink silk stockings.— just a tantalizing amount of almost flesh-colored surface above the leggings, at the point where her legs began to swell. The contrivance has often been resorted to in the ballet. It may be that I wrong her by the suspicion that her falls were not always accidental. She was a most excellent skater, and it did seem odd that she should go over on her face, with her heels kicking up behind, four times in one hour. Being of her sex I was no doubt envious. However, I did not discern any incredulity on the part of the men, who invariably rushed to her assistance, and I really believe the trickery was as pleasing to them as it was to her.”

On the whole, it is perhaps as well that we have no skating in ‘Frisco.

The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 22 January 1881

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Well, quite.

Young ladies who skated in crinoline in the ’60s might certainly tantalise the young men with a glimpse of stocking, but the narrower dresses of the ’80s should have rendered this delight impossible, except, of course, to this saucy siren of the ice. One wonders if this member of the “swell” skating party “swelled” her calves by means of artificial padding as young ladies did in the ’60s.

Some other posts on ice-skating: A Naughty Story on Ice, An Idler at a New York Ice Carnival, and How to Be Decorative While Ice-Skating.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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