Just about any Game of Thrones fan can tell you the name of Arya Stark's diminutive sword ("Needle") and how she got it (Jon Snow, her supposed half-brother, had it forged for her when her father Eddard Stark refused to allow her to learn to fight). Being small and female, Arya can't fight using a heavy broadsword, so her rapier-like sword -- very like a fencing foil -- is well suited to her. And once her father sees that she's determined to learn to fight, he employs a Braavosi master swordsman to teach her the "Water Dance" style of swordfighting.
lthough Arya's owning a sword and learning to use it are portrayed as rebellious acts (on the part of a daughter of a noble house, anyway), you might be surprised to learn that women have been fencing for a long time. Foil fencing was one of the first sports in which women were allowed to compete in the Olympics (in 1924), but these photos show that women had already been learning fencing for decades at that point.
In the above photo, from 1885, two women are fencing while wearing corsets and the full Victorian getup in addition to their fencing vests and masks. (We're impressed.) But possibly because the corset and other women's clothing of the 1800s-early 1900s was very restrictive, there was a period in which women's fencing went topless: Women would fence naked from the waist up and wearing a full skirt.
The little heart patch you see in this and other photos on this page is not there to be cute -- it's a way of scoring points.
As women's fashions in general became less restrictive after the Victorian and Edwardian eras, women had more fencing uniform options, more safety gear, and less of a need to compete topless.
Today, female fencers can compete in the Olympics in women's fencing using the foil, epee or saber -- the three weapons used in modern fencing. And topless fencing and little felt hearts are long gone from the sport.
The posts on this blog are conceived of and written by various members of a homeschooling family. We're lifetime learners who delight in finding odd bits of history, obscure practices that were once commonplace, and forgotten cultural icons tucked away in books and on the Internet.