Skating Dress

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Although skating is an activity that takes many forms—each with its unique clothing requirements—ice-skating, and specifically figure skating, provides the most prominent image of the skating dress. Figure skating is an athletic and expressive sport. Whether skating recreationally on a frozen-over outdoor pond or as a competitor with a rigorous daily training schedule on an indoor rink, clothing plays a major role in enhancing the experience.

The movements involved in figure skating engage the entire body. The motion and flow across the ice requires smooth actions of the arms and legs along with powerful gliding strokes, quick turns and rotations, explosive jumps, and fast footwork. The clothing that the skater wears can enhance these movements while at the same time allowing the skater to maintain a comfortable temperature while moving efficiently and without distraction. This blend of aesthetic and functional possibilities of dress mix in action to become almost one with the skater, the result being a total athletic and artistic expression.

Beginning with the functional requirements, the regulation of body temperature is primary. Skaters start a workout by wearing layers, shedding sweaters or jackets as they warm up, and donning them again as they cool down. The ability to move freely is key to performance. Therefore, outfits are close to the body, allowing for movement without the garments getting in the way of action. Women typically wear tights or snug pants that protect the legs from abrasions during falls. Many wear short skirts or dresses, and long-sleeved tops with plenty of stretch. Men wear close-fitting pants and shirts. The skates (boots and blades) are usually white for women and black for men. Laces keep the boot securely fitted to the foot and the ankle supported, yet allowing for bend and movement. Accessories are minimally worn so as to not interfere with fast moves or get caught or tangled in hair or garments. Gloves provide extra warmth and protection, and hats or headbands warm the head and secure the hair.

The aesthetic component of skating dress at best enhances the sensation of movement, while connecting the overall visual effect to the music and theme of the skater's performance. Competition clothing is much dressier and showier than everyday practice dress. The possibilities are almost endless, given the intended expressive results. Sequins, rhinestones, jewels, and shiny textures reflect light and add excitement and elegance. Flowing, lightweight fabrics lift and float as they move across the ice with the skater. The placement of embellishments actively draws the eye to various locations on the body, whether centered in predictable neckline and skirt edging or along sleeves or pants to enhance arm and leg extensions. Sometimes the visual activity in a costume can overtake the overall impression, almost negating the skater, and at other times, subtle highlights in dress put the skater's body as the primary point of attraction. The most exquisite out-come occurs when the skater's body and the dress work together to form action and visual effect, one enhancing the other within the context of the performance.

Behind aesthetic and performance possibilities are major advances in fabric technology. The functional requirements of movement and comfort have been greatly enhanced by the development of fabrics with stretch. Prior to the development of elastine fibers, particularly Lycra, skaters' ensembles were limited to nonstretch fabrics, or bulky knits with limited range and recovery. This meant that movement potential was designed into garments by placing gussets (small patches of fabric joining garment sections, such as at the armpit) so that the arm could move above the shoulder without the sleeve lifting the rest of the garment.

As more fiber combinations became possible, skaters were no longer limited to pleats, gores, drape, and gathers to provide shape and fullness. Layers of lightweight novelty fabrics rich with embellishments can create theatrical aesthetic effects without the heavy structural constraint of days past. Adding to the design possibilities is a sheer mesh fabric that can "bare" the skin and support sparkles and trims. Now skating costumes can be created to cover the body strategically, and still stay on and function with extreme movement demands. The possibilities are unlimited.

Skating dress has evolved to reflect the spirit of the times as well as dress regulations of everyday fashion. In the early twentieth century, skirts were worn to the top of the skate, reflecting the modesty practice of women not showing their legs despite the movement restrictions. As women's status advanced and their place in sport widened, skirts became shorter and necklines lower. Although this is a simplified observation, along with other forms of athletic apparel (for gymnasts and dancers), skating dress evolved to allow the body to be more primary in viewing and in action potential. Dress now supports and enhances women as athletes. Men had traditionally been in the background, relative to skating dress. Instead of a "flashy" presence in competitions, men mostly wore outfits that resembled suits that had limited decoration. As with women's dress, men's dress has since evolved along with attitudes toward gender roles. Now male skaters often wear costumes that are every bit as showy and elaborate as women's dress.

Because skating is a popular spectator sport, skaters in the spotlight have been behind many fashion trends. Dorothy Hamill and her bobbed hair is an example of this. The elegance and excitement of skating dress in major competitions is awaited by some people with the same anticipation commonly seen on Oscar night in Hollywood. Although the form of the dress is unique to skating, the colors, textures, and surface embellishments, often inspire and follow fashions in other environments

Skating dress is at best a synergy of artistry, comfort, and movement. It is a part of a total experience, reflecting athleticism and cultural expression.

See alsoActivewear; Sportswear .


Stephenson, Lois and Richard. A History and Annotated Bibliography of Skating Costume. Meriden, Conn.: Bayberry Hill Press, 1970.

Janet Hethorn