The recent brouhaha at the Olympics has revived all the usual questions about whether figure skating depends too much on subjective tastes, whether it’s truly a sport, and so on. To which Uni Watch adds the following query: Instead of those frilly outfits, why can’t figure skaters just wear a unitard and a number, like all the other Olympic athletes? Some analysts even suggested that Jamie Sale and David Pelletier’s understated apparel may have been partly to blame for their controversial second-place finish in the pairs competition. Not that there’s anything wrong with a sport placing heavy emphasis on sartorial aesthetics—that’s Uni Watch’s raison d’être, after all. But why does figure skating insist on all the sequins and ruffles?
“Because we’re all individuals, and that’s reflected in what we wear,” says Frances Dafoe, a former world champion skater and costume designer. Dafoe, who’s putting together a historical exhibition of skating outfits, says early skatewear was defined in part by prevailing fashions but also by a factor we now take for granted: warmth. “Indoor ice rinks didn’t exist yet,” she explains, so early-1900s male skaters typically wore knickers, sweaters, and short coats, while women donned cloth skirts, silk stockings, petticoats, scarves, hats, and even muffs.
Indoor rinks eventually allowed skaters to wear fewer layers, but Dafoe says it was the rise of television that really transformed skatewear from outfits into costumes. With the camera providing ever closer views, skaters began adding more details to their apparel. Changing fashions, loosening mores (“The women all wore long sleeves until 1982; now they wear no sleeves,” says Dafoe), and the development of new fabrics have all contributed to skating’s current Broadway-on-ice visage.
As for unitards, it’s worth noting that American skater Debi Thomas wore something fairly unitard-ish (but no number) during the 1988 Olympics, which occasioned such an uproar that the International Skating Union added a rule requiring women to wear skirts. Then again, ISU rules also mandate that skaters’ clothing “must be modest, dignified and appropriate for athletic competition, not garish or theatrical in design,” which would seem to disqualify virtually everyone in the sport. All of which brings us back where we started, since garishness, much like a triple lutz, is a matter of subjective taste.