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Spandex, sparkle, and pure athleticism: A photo history of figure-skating fashion

Marc Bain
I, Tonya

In frigid, mountainous Pyeongchang, South Korea, most of the athletes in the 2018 winter Olympics will be wearing warm (or even self-heating) uniforms. The figure skaters, however, will take the ice in costumes.

The distinction matters. Unlike other sports, where the clothes are designed for utility more than appearance, in figure skating the costumes are a crucial component of a skater’s whole creative presentation, alongside the music and the routine itself. It’s the skating, of course, that the Olympians will be judged on, but when all the elements come together, the costume can become part of the margin between victory and loss.

That’s why skaters and designers spend a lot of time working out how a costume should look, as well as how it feels. “You’re out there four minutes, and that can seem like a lifetime if something is wrong with the dress,” says Pat Pearsall, a designer with some 20 years in the business who has created looks for multiple Olympians, including team USA’s Mirai Nagasu this year. “It has to fit well, it has to feel good. They have to feel like it is exactly portraying what they want that program to portray. My job is to figure out what that needs to look like, and make it.”

For the past few decades, that look has often been short dresses made of colorful stretch fabrics, embellished with crystals numbering into the thousands. Just look at the sparkly extravaganzas in I, Tonya, director Craig Gillespie’s movie about American Olympian Tonya Harding.

It wasn’t always that way. In the 1920s and 1930s, skaters often dressed in clothes that looked as if they could have strolled off the ice and into everyday life. But then synthetic fibers came along, leading to the rise of stretch fabrics.

While Pearsall says heavy, velvet dresses with circular skirts were still the norm in the 1960s, stretch was already starting to infiltrate. Fabrics such as Lycra allowed for close-fitting yet flexible costumes, and steadily what women and men wore on the ice began to look more athletic—not to mention more elaborate and dramatic. Crystal embellishments and eye-catching colors gradually swept across the on-ice looks.

Women’s costumes in particular have also gotten more revealing. Flesh-colored mesh, which lets designers add cutouts to a costume or make it look strapless without risking a wardrobe malfunction, is now everywhere. Presently, the International Skating Union, competitive figure skating’s governing body, states that (pdf) skaters’ costumes must be “modest, dignified and appropriate for athletic competition—not garish or theatrical in design.” It adds that clothing “must not give the effect of excessive nudity,” and men must wear trousers, not tights.

The images below, many straight from the Olympic games, offer a glimpse at the figure-skating fashion of each era. Darrell Ingham, the senior archive editor at Getty Images, selected the images from nearly a century of figure-skating looks, drawing from Getty’s London archive of nearly 80 million pictures, as well as the vast stores it got access to when it became the official photographic agency of the International Olympic Committee in 2016. Together, they outline the history of figure skating’s distinctive look, which has adapted to the needs of skaters as well as those of the camera. “They’re there to catch the eye,” Ingham says of Olympic costumes. “You want to be seen. That’s quite vital.”

1928: Ellen Brockhöft of Germany skates in a skirt and jacket that resemble a woman’s day wear on ice.

(Eingeschränkte Rechte für bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) Eiskunstläuferin, Sportlerin, Deutschland *25.04.1895-19.12.1977+ Portrait beim Eiskunstlauf Aufnahme: Robert Sennecke Originalaufnahme im Archiv von ullstein bild (Photo by Robert Senneckeullstein bild via Getty Images)

Ellen Brockhöft.

1930: Constance Wilson trains for the world championship in what looks to be an embroidered shearling jacket, velvet skirt, and—yes—some form of pantyhose.

(Original Caption) Miss Constance Wilson, woman figure skating champion of canada and the United States, photographed while training here for the world championship meeting at New York February 3-5. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

Constance Wilson.

1936: Maxie Herber, in a short dress already starting to resemble today’s costumes, and Ernst Baier, in suit and tie, win the Olympic Pairs figure skating gold medal at Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

February 1936: Maxie Herber and Ernst Baier winning the 1936 Olympic Pairs figure skating gold medal at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Maxie Herber and Ernst Baier.

1958: Costumes are clearly looking more theatrical, as shown by Bob Paul and Barbara Wagner during a practice session. He’s still wearing a tie, but her short, pleated skirt would be at home on the ice today.

Figure Skating: Portrait of Bob Paul and Barbara Wagner in action during practice session at Toronto Cricket Skating & Curling Club. Cover. Toronto, Canada 1/29/1958 CREDIT: John G. Zimmerman (Photo by John G. Zimmerman /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X4992 )

Bob Paul and Barbara Wagner.

1964: The tuxedo persists in this shot of Oleg Protopopov and Lumilla Belousova of the Soviet Union at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Pearsall points out that these tuxedoes often used gussets under the arms to allow for more movement.

(Original Caption) 1/29/64-Innsbruck, Austria: Lumilla Belousova and Oleg Protopopov (Soviet Union) during their performance (she is dipping) in the Olympic pairs figure skating competition tonight in the Olympic Ice Stadium here. The Russian team won the Gold Medal with 104.4 points. The German team Marika Kilius and Hans-Jurgen Baummer placed second with 103.6 seconds.

Oleg Protopopov and Lumilla Belousova.

1968: While the silhouette of this look on Peggy Fleming, seen during a Winter Olympics practice in Grenoble, France, is much like what you see at the Olympics today, the fabric was heavier and had less stretch. That was changing, however.

FRANCE - FEBRUARY 05: Figure Skating: 1968 Winter Olympics, Portrait of USA Peggy Fleming in action during practice, Grenoble, FRA 2/5/1968 (Photo by John G. Zimmerman/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (SetNumber: X12984)

Peggy Fleming.

1978: Stretch also gave rise to bodysuits for male skaters, as seen here on Olympic gold-medal-winner Robin Cousins of Great Britain, in a very 1970s look.

World and Olympic gold medal winning figure skater Robin Cousins of Great Britain on 1st December 1978 (Photo byTony Duffy/Getty Images)

Robin Cousins.

1984: Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean of Great Britain ice dance in dramatic—and thematic—costumes at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

Ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean of Great Britain perform their Bolero routine for the Ice Dance Skating at the XIV Olympic Winter Games on 14 February 1984 Skenderija II Hall, Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. (Photo by Trevor Jones/Getty Images)

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.

1986: The idea of the tuxedo is still present, only now it has transformed into a shimmering bodysuit on Sergei Grinkov, who performs with Ekaterina Gordeeva of Russia at the European Figure Skating Championships.

Sergei Grinkov and Ekaterina Gordeeva of Russia performing in a pairs skating event during the European Figure Skating Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, circa 1986. (Photo by Eileen Langsley/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Sergei Grinkov and Ekaterina Gordeeva.

1992: American Kristi Yamaguchi’s highly embellished outfit catches the light as she performs a spin during gold-medal winning performance. While crystals add sparkle, they also add weight, so designers need to be measured in how many they use.

American figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi performing spiral spin during gold medal winning performance at 1992 winter Olympics. (Photo by Sergei Guneyev/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Kristi Yamaguchi

1994: Not all women opt for the typical tiny skirt of modern costumes. Surya Bonaly of France wears a glittering bodysuit at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Surya Bonaly of France competing in the Ladies figure skating event during the Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, circa February 1994. Bonaly placed fourth. (Photo by Eileen Langsley/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Surya Bonaly.

1996: American Michelle Kwan skates in a dress with a bold flesh-mesh midsection at the US national championships. The mesh gives the look of bare skin without the risk of the costume slipping in a way it shouldn’t.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 20: Figure Skating: USA National Championships, Michelle Kwan in action, San Jose, CA 1/20/1996 (Photo by Brad Mangin/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (SetNumber: X49984)

Michelle Kwan.

2010: Some costumes go all out to match a theme, like this crystal-covered skeleton suit worn by Kevin van der Perren of Belgium at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 16: Kevin van der Perren of Belgium competes in the men's figure skating short program on day 5 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at the Pacific Coliseum on February 16, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Kevin van der Perren.

2014: The outfit on Japan’s Akiko Suzuki uses flesh-mesh to mimic the look of a strapless mini dress accessorized with a necklace at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The image itself was created using multiple exposures.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 19: (Editors Note: Image was created using multiple exposure in camera) Akiko Suzuki of Japan competes in the Figure Skating Ladies' Short Program on day 12 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Iceberg Skating Palace on February 19, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Akiko Suzuki.

2014: All the hallmarks of modern figure-skating fashion—from the crystals to the cutout to the lightweight, body-hugging stretch fabric—are evident in this stunning shot of American Polina Edmunds competing at the Sochi, Russia, Winter Olympics.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 19: Polina Edmunds of the United States competes in the Figure Skating Ladies' Short Program on day 12 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Iceberg Skating Palace on February 19, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Polina Edmunds.

A previous version of this story stated that the International Olympic Committee’s photo archive included nearly 80 million images. It is Getty’s London archive that contains that number.


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