figure skating 1994 winter olympics closeup of usa tonya harding in picture

The Crazy Evolution of Figure Skating Fashion

We take a spin through a century’s worth of sequins and fringe.

From opera-length gloves to double-sided tape, a lot has changed since 1908. (Pictured: Tonya Harding at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.)

Madge Syers of Britain, 1908 ullstein bild Dtl./ullstein bild via Getty Images Madge Syers of Britain, 1908 The sport of figure skating was originally contested at the Summer Games, making its debut during the 1908 London Olympics. Hometown favorite Madge Syers pirouetted to gold clad in opera-length gloves, puffy blouse, and ankle-length skirt. Judges’ score for range of motion: 0. Herma Planck-Szabo of Hungary, Ethel Muckelt of Britain, and Beatrix Loughran of the U.S., 1924 Topical Press Agency/Getty Images Herma Planck-Szabo of Hungary, Ethel Muckelt of Britain, and Beatrix Loughran of the U.S., 1924 This trio of medalists from the first Winter Games in Chamonix, France, look as though they could walk right off the ice and into a suffragettes meeting, with their cloche hats, cheeky sweaters, and drop-waist belts. We’d call them the bee’s knees except, well, we can’t see their knees. Sonja Henie of Norway, 1932 Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Sonja Henie of Norway, 1932 Considered the greatest female skater of all-time (she won consecutive gold medals in 1928, 1932, and 1936), Henie fully embraced the pageantry of her sport — a flair that would serve her well later on as a professional skater and film actress. Here, performing a demonstration at Lake Placid ahead of the actual competition, Henie left no detail of her ensemble unconsidered — from the fascinator and pearls to the bouquet of rosettes on her sleeves. No wonder Hollywood came calling. Gretchen Merrill of the U.S., 1948 FPG/Getty Images Gretchen Merrill of the U.S., 1948 In a 1946 LIFE magazine cover story, writer Oliver Jensen described Merrill’s competition wardrobe thusly: “Currently she has about 50 skating costumes, short in length but long on cost. Some of her exhibition costumes cost about $250 each. In fact, the least expensive items are her skates...and cost only $25 a pair.” Merrill would go on to place eighth at the games in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Beatrix Schuba of Austria, 1972 Jerry Cooke/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images Beatrix Schuba of Austria, 1972 Is this a dress? A jacket? A...dracket? Whatever you call the tailored navy number, it helped Schuba look every inch the champion atop the medal podium in Sapporo, Japan. (Consider this the infancy of the embellishment era...) Rosalynn Sumner of the U.S., 1984 David Madison/Getty Images Rosalynn Sumner of the U.S., 1984 Once the medals have been doled out, the real fun can begin: the figure skating gala exhibition. It’s here that the top performers let down their hair (often literally) and put on a show free of the pressures of competition. And while exhibition fashion trends more casual, we’re not sure it should trend sweater-vest casual. Katarina Witt of East Germany, 1988 Bob Thomas/Bob Thomas/Getty Images Katarina Witt of East Germany, 1988 The gold medalist’s feather-fringed costume from the Calgary Games actually inspired an International Skating Union ruling nicknamed the “Katarina Rule.” It dictated that women skaters must wear a skirt that covers their hips and posterior during competition. (As you see here, Witt eschewed a skirt in favor of strategically placed plumage.) The rule would stand until 2003. Debi Thomas of the U.S., 1988 David Madison/Getty Images Debi Thomas of the U.S., 1988 Another figure skater who ruffled feathers at the Calgary Games, Thomas wore a full-body black unitard instead of the customary skating skirt. The Katarina Rule would also effectively ban these types of outfits since they didn’t include a skirt. Surya Bonaly of France, 1992 Bob Thomas/Bob Thomas/Getty Images Surya Bonaly of France, 1992 Costuming took a turn for the couture at the Albertville Olympics, with American skater Nancy Kerrigan donning Vera Wang designs and French skater Surya Bonaly commissioning costumes from Christian Lacroix. For this ornate red frock, Lacroix took inspiration from Spanish bullfighters. Midori Ito of Japan, 1992 The Asahi Shimbun Midori Ito of Japan, 1992 In another head-scratching exhibition outfit, silver medalist Ito skated with a potentially dangerous prop in hand: an umbrella. You could poke an eye out with that thing! Michelle Kwan of the U.S., 1998 Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images Michelle Kwan of the U.S., 1998 In an era of superfluous sequins and fringe, sometimes the most shocking fashion move you can make is the most simple. The silver medalist took to the ice in Nagano in a no-frills powder blue velvet dress that left other outfits looking garish by comparison. Irina Slutskaya of Russian, 2006 Robert Laberge/Getty Images Irina Slutskaya of Russian, 2006 The triumphant return of the unitard! With the skirt rule now void, a handful of skaters — including the Turin bronze medalist — have since gone to great lengths in their costuming. Cynthia Phaneuf of Canada, 2010 ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images Cynthia Phaneuf of Canada, 2010 Sporting a navel-grazing plunge, we can only imagine Phaneuf owes a huge debt of gratitude to the double-sided tape industry.