Figure skating legend and 1976 gold medalist Dorothy Hamill recalls her first skating costume. It wasn’t designed by Vera Wang or Christian Lacroix. Alas, it was a sad, frumpy little frock hand-stitched by her mother.
“My first skating costume was red and knitted and it had a little white marabou trim at the bottom,” Hamill recalled. “That was it. No other embellishments.”
By the time Hamill reached the Olympics, her wardrobe was still as exciting as a bedsheet. She was donning dresses made by a friend of her mother. Cost: $120.
That simplicity is a far cry from the parade of glamour that will be seen this weekend at the US Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden, and next month at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Ice queens will compete in costumes inspired by red carpet couture and featuring avant-garde asymmetrical cutouts, intricate beading, hand-sewn Swarovski crystals, netting, and lace.
Indeed, some of the latest looks are as dazzling as the contents of Beyonce’s coat closet.
“It’s become more and more elaborate,” said Nick Verreos, a former “Project Runway” contestant and designer who blogs about skating costumes, many of which now average $1,000 to $2,000, and can run as high as $5,000. “What I’ve also been noticing is that these skaters are changing their outfits more often. It’s become a bit of a fashion show on ice.”
The most seasoned and well-regarded costume designer in the business, Jef Billings, puts it more succinctly: “This is fantasy, not the Gap. Give the people what they want.”
While women’s figure skating costumes become more chic and elaborate, one thing can’t change: These are pieces constructed for athletic competition, not for standing and chatting with Ryan Seacrest before a Hollywood awards ceremony.
Dresses are carefully tailored to a skater’s body and must be functional for triple axels and double toe loops. Such stiff requirements are perhaps what keep big-name fashion designers, with few exceptions such as Vera Wang, from entering the skate costume world.
“When you are trying two to three quads in a program, you want as little distraction as possible,” said Kristi Yamaguchi, who took home a gold medal for the United States at the 1992 Olympics. “You want to be aerodynamic. You don’t want anything weighing you down, distracting you, or getting in the way.”
Costume designers work closely with skaters and coaches in a process that can take two months or more to complete. Wellesley-based costume designer Yumi Barnett-Nakamura, who has worked with skater and Harvard student Christina Gao, Ross Miner, and pairs skaters Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff, starts by listening to the skaters’ music, talking about the theme of their program, and watching their moves. Her work was on full display at Thursday’s opening ceremonies at the Garden.
There is function in her exquisitely crafted work, but according to Barnett-Nakamura’s business manager, Susan Doyle, what young skaters want is fashion. When they see pop culture figures, such as a shimmering Carey Mulligan in the film “The Great Gatsby,” they want to look just as glamorous.
“We make sure we’re watching what’s happening at the Oscars and what’s happening on the red carpet so we know the latest trends, because that’s what they’re going to be asking for,” Doyle said. “This is their red carpet moment, and they want to dazzle.”
Figure skating costume design began borrowing from pop culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After decades of simple skirts from Sonja Henie and Peggy Fleming, the subtlety of these costumes was steamrolled by the disco sensibility of Linda Fratianne. She arrived dripping in beads and feathers as if she were auditioning to be an extra in “Thank God It’s Friday.” Soon after, 1980s power dressing began influencing the over-the-top costumes of Olympians Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas.
The “Katarina Rule” was adopted by the International Skating Union in 1988 after Witt showed up in a feathery, skirtless, skin-baring ensemble that gave her the look of a showgirl kicked out of the Copacabana. The Katarina Rule dictated, among other things, that a skirt covering hips and posterior was required for ladies’ competition (the skirt part of the rule was dropped in 2003). The rule also put a temporary end to the beaded body stockings that Thomas was sporting at the time.
Yamaguchi remembers that time well, because as she was rising in the skating world in the late 1980s, the new rules went into effect, limiting her skating style options.
“I had some fun costumes, with all the sequins and the rhinestones,” said Yamaguchi, who is now designing her own line of activewear. “But then the restriction came down, and my costumes had to get a lot simpler. I didn’t want to have points deducted because of what I was wearing, so it was a time to be conservative.”
Billings, who has designed for nearly every big name in skating, said that after the roller coaster ride of tacky to austere, we’ve arrived at a place of taste. “I think the clothes are better now than they have been over the years,” he said. “I don’t think we’re in an overly gaudy period.”
Prodded for some of the worst examples of skating fashion, he maintained a gentlemanly tight lip. However, he offered that he’s a fan of the ensembles worn by Sasha Cohen and Mao Asada.
Boston-based skate costume designer Paul Ginandes said although it was dropped, the Katarina Rule is still at the back of designers’ minds. What he says he sees is beauty in the craftsmanship of the work. But there are, of course, frequent lapses of taste. There is even a Tumblr site, Skating Fugly, devoted to documenting the worst in skate costume.
Verreos, however, said he doesn’t mind seeing those gaudy, tacky, and downright ugly skate dresses.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love an amazing, beautiful skating dress,” he said. “But I also love when a look goes horribly wrong. Good or bad, I just don’t want to be bored.”Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.comFollow him on Twitter @chris_muther.