Evolution of Figure Skating Costumes

by Lindsay Wong

Figure skating is a sport known for its athleticism and grace, in which appearance plays a huge role in the overall presentation. In most winter sports, outfits are based on functionality and utility, but in figure skating, costumes are essential in a skater’s performance. A skater’s entire creative presentation is important, from the costume to the music to every jump and pose. Much like the sport itself, costumes in the sport have evolved over time and have a fascinating history.

1920s-30s: Function Over Fashion

When the inaugural Winter Olympics was launched in France in 1924, all skaters dressed for the weather instead of visual appeal, since the events took place outdoors. It was common to see wool skirts, baggy trousers and knitted sweaters on the ice. It must have been hard for skaters to land complicated jumps while wearing such heavy outfits, but this is what they were used to. Men generally wore suits with many layers to skate and protect themselves from the cold. At the 1936 Winter Olympics, American skater Sonja Henie significantly influenced the figure skating fashion scene when she wore a short-hemmed dress. By the end of that decade, women’s hemlines became shorter. Furthermore, new fabrics were introduced to the market, including satin, usually worn with nylon stockings. This makes the performance look more elegant, particularly for the ladies.

Sonja Henie

1940s-60s: The Influence of Global Circumstances

The 40s and 50s were turbulent times for everyone around the world because of World War 2 and dealing with the aftermath. During the war, all resources were dedicated to the war effort. As a result, there was a fabric shortage. Because there was less fabric available to make clothes, skaters had to wear costumes that showed more skin. Some skaters from more hard-hit countries, particularly in Europe, had to wear hand-me-downs. In the 1950s, female skaters started wearing dresses with skirts that billowed when they leapt in the air, painting a nicer picture during their performance. This is the decade when skaters started experimenting more with their costumes and how it could influence their performance. Costumes became more extravagant as skaters wore brighter colors with decorative elements like sequins. At the 1968 Olympics, American figure skater Peggy Fleming wore a long-sleeved lime green dress that definitely allowed her to stand out against her competitors – she took home the gold medal. However, men started to stick to less eccentric colors like black and blue.

Peggy Fleming

1970s-80s: The Extravagance Continues

In the following decades, figure skaters’ costumes became more extravagant in its colors, design and accessories. American skater Dorothy Hamill wore a red dress with a white-trimmed V-neck at the 1976 Olympics. Before this, costumes generally had a high neckline. Dresses became more embellished with crystals so they could glitter on the ice. In terms of material, spandex skyrocketed in popularity because it was fitting and suitable for the ice as it allowed skaters to be flexible. American skater Scott Hamilton turned heads at the 1984 Olympics when he wore a patriotic spandex outfit that was completely red and blue. Spandex outfits were often decorated with crystals in order to stand out.

Scott Hamilton

1990s-now: Shining, Shimmering, Splendid

American skater Johnny Weir noted that “costumes really became a character in the performance,” and this was certainly true in the past few decades. Since the 90s, skaters’ costumes tend to reflect their routines and the narratives they are trying to tell in their performances. Weir himself wore an outfit that resembled a swan’s feathers for his performance of ‘The Swan’ at the 2006 Olympics. Costume design had to take into account artistry but also athleticism, so the materials or accessories would not hinder the skater’s performance. The fancier the better: sequins, gradients and crystals help to enhance the costume. Costumes crafted by famous fashion designers also helped to create buzz around a skater and their performance. For example, American Nancy Kerrigan’s bedazzled beige dress at the 1994 Olympics was designed by Vera Wang. At the 1992 Olympics, French skater Surya Bonaly wore a dress designed by Christian Lacroix.

Johnny Weir

Japanese skater Yuzuru Hanyu has always emphasized the importance of costumes in his performances. For example, for his ‘Seimei’ performance in 2015, Hanyu helped to design and conceptualize his costume and gave a lot of input to his designer. ‘Seimei’ is the soundtrack from the Japanese epic film ‘Onmyoji,’ which is set in the Heian period (9th-12th centuries). Hence, Hanyu wanted his costume to reflect the clothing worn by Japanese officials during this time period. The costume involved a white base with a pea green and purple lace pattern on the hems. Up to 3000 rhinestones were used to decorate the white base. Likewise, intentional blends of colors together create a certain mood for the audience. Standing out with costumes is a plus because it could make the skaters more memorable to judges and the audience.

Yuzuru Hanyu

Figure skating costumes have evolved from being purely for functionality to now being an integral part of a skater’s performance. With the many variations that skaters have come up with now, costume design is always highly anticipated. As more and more skaters take part in the design process, the audience can witness how the skater intends to incorporate their costume into the performance. It is always exciting to see what a skater will be wearing to their next performance and seeing how it contributes and enhances it.