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Here is how you make an Olympic figure skating costume, according to the people who do: First, you meet with the skater. You’ve listened to the the music for their program — over and over again, you’ve listened to their music — and you’ve watched them on YouTube, on TV, in past Olympics, in person, since they were 6. (It is not uncommon for a costume designer to work with a skater for years.) You want to understand who they are, how they are, how they move, do they do a weird arm thing?
So you meet with the skater, but at that level, it’s not only the skater. It’s also the coach, sometimes more than one coach, and the choreographer, of course. A parent, maybe. Sometimes they know what they want, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they do, but it doesn’t make any sense. “Nobody knows what the hell they’re talking about,” laughs Jan Longmire, one of a tiny handful of skating costume elites, who is responsible for Ashley Wagner’s legendary “suit of armor,” as well as (with some exceptions) pretty much everything Sasha Cohen ever wore. They want something from a picture, or a movie, something, she says, “that cannot be translated into an athlete’s dress,” which has to appear light and beautiful, but is “basically constructed like a piece of army surplus material.” Anyway, you listen, or you don’t, and then you propose some sketches, and the skater settles on one, or there are some negotiations back and forth — what about this neckline with that skirt? — and then the skater settles on one.
If the skater is local, all this happens in person. If they aren’t, you use video chat and the mail. Everyone has their own process for what happens next, but it all dissolves into this: Somehow, you make the outfit. “I drape it right on them, because everything is custom,” says Gail Johnson, who works out of her home in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and has designed for Gracie Gold, Evan Lysacek, and — for the Pyeongchang Olympics — US National Champion Bradie Tennell. “And then I cut it up to make it look like the dress that I drew, and we try it on again to make sure it’s perfect, and then we add stones to it.” She says this casually, like it is not a process that can take upwards of 100 hours, start to finish.
That’s where it ends, unless, of course, it doesn’t. The U.S. Figure Skating (USFSA) may have objections; they may decide, during the season, that dress needs to be white, or alternately, not be white. A skater could, at the last minute, abandon one routine for a different one, and you can’t wear an old tango dress if now you’re skating to “Paint It Black.”
“You have to be clinically insane to do this,” says Longmire. “Nobody teaches you.” It’s a weirdly specific vocation, and there is no training program nor long-standing apprenticeship system. There’s not even a book. “You just take this solo journey,” she explains. “You have to screw up so much just to get anything right, because there’s nobody to show you.” As a result, everyone in the industry, which is tiny — everyone knows everybody and is probably Facebook friends, because there just aren’t that many people to know — has their own methods, developed by trial and error, and natural-born perfectionism, which, she says, you just can’t teach.
“When somebody is paying you a reasonable amount of money, and they have a senior event on the line” — senior, in skating terms, is the top level there is — “you’ve got to get it right,” she says. “That keeps you working up and over whatever you could do yesterday, because there is no such thing as handing Sasha Cohen a crappy dress. You have to make that thing work, whatever it takes.”
For all of the designers I talked to, the fact that they do this at all is a combination of a life-long passion and an accident and very good timing. Longmire was making costumes for local theater groups, when, in her early 30s, she walked into a rink in Santa Monica and asked for a lesson. “That was, like, my dream come true. Of course, at 32 years old, what are you going to do?” As it happened, the rink had a guy going to nationals who needed a costume. “I went, well, eeeeeeh, uh, I don’t know how to do that, but then I saw this guy, and he was so heartbreakingly beautiful,” so she agreed — what else could a reasonable person do? — and so she was inducted into the world of stretch fabrics. “It was so bad,” she says. “But you’ve got to start somewhere.”
Based in New York City, Tania Bass has worked with Michael Weiss, Irina Slutskaya, and Sarah Hughes, among others — the sparkling peach costume Hughes wore on the cover of Time was hers. Bass was designing sportswear when a neighbor asked if she might design a dress for her son’s dance partner for an international competition — “I put her on the floor and I traced her body to make the unitard” — which led to more dance costumes, which, eventually, led her to skating. Johnson started out sewing skating costumes for her daughter. In Atlanta, Brad Griffies, who is known for his crystal-encrusted ensembles — including, this year, French skater Maé-Bérénice Méité’s crowd-pleasing black unitard, as well as his extensive ready-to-wear line — is a former skater himself.
It is weird that figure skating has costumes, a symptom of both its magic and its murkiness. “While sports such as baseball and basketball certainly feature creativity and beauty,” declares The Official Book of Figure Skating, written, officially, by the USFSA, “these qualities are splendid afterthoughts in these games, signs of greatness… Only figure skating requires beauty.” It continues:
The jumps and spins and delicate footwork — these make up the language of figure skating, and the athletes must combine them with music and dress, and perform them — perfectly — in a way that expresses who she is.
Skaters receive two sets of marks for each skate: one for “technical elements” (what it sounds like), and the other for “program components,” encompassing “artistry, interpretation, and presentation.”
Costumes, in and of themselves, are not a factor in either, so long as they adhere to International Skating Union (ISU) rules, which dictate that clothing “must be modest, dignified and appropriate for athletic competition — not garish or theatrical in design. Clothing may, however, reflect the character of the music chosen.” Also, clothing must not “give the effect of excessive nudity” — that includes excessive skin-colored fabrics — and “men must wear full length trousers and must not wear tights.” The inadvertent prohibition on female skaters in unitards — the International Skating Union demanded all women compete in skirts “covering hips and posterior” after Katarina Witt’s scandalously high-cut (and memorably fluffy) showgirl-inspired ensemble in at the 1988 games in Calgary — was lifted in 2003.
I ask Johnson about the theatricality thing. She laughs very hard.
“Here’s the thing with costumes,” says Johnson. “You don’t get any points for costume. You don’t lose any points for costume, unless you get dinged for your costume because it wasn’t appropriate.” Nobody is getting scored on their costumes, that’s true.
But costumes do matter, if not for the judging directly, than for the skater herself. Consider Ashley Wagner’s over-the-top ensembles at the 2014 Sochi Olympics — an Olympics many skating fans felt she shouldn’t even have been at at all. (Despite a weak performance at that year’s US Championships, Wagner was chosen for the team over Mirai Nagasu, a star this year.) “Everybody hated her. She was sort of the Tonya Harding of the day,” Longmire, who did her costumes that season, recalls. And so Longmire doubled down, making her a new bigger, better, louder, stronger costume. “I called it the suit of armor,” she says. “[It] was my way of saying, we’re going to reinvent your dress, but we’re not changing it. We’re just making it more brilliant, more stones, more skin, more everything that could possibly piss anybody off.”
A great costume cannot turn a good skater into a great skater, but it can help a great skater feel like one. “If they’re confident that they look good, or if they’re confident that they’re wearing something that portrays what it is they want to feel for four and a half minutes, that’s going to help them,” Longmire says. In general, that means glitter — most skaters feel more confident with more glitter — and also a flattering cut, which is a loaded art unto itself. “Everybody wants to look thinner no matter what,” Longmire sighs. “The weight thing is horrible.” But if they’re done right, costumes can mitigate that pressure. “You can’t accomplish miracles,” she says, “but you can help.”
Lately, Longmire has been taking inspiration from rhythmic gymnastics costumes, which have nude mesh cut-outs on the sides. It is a good way to create a lithe waist for a shorter, less-lithe skater, she explains: By adding and subtracting fabric, you can create an alternative silhouette, a body within a body. “Because they’re not going to do anything about their [actual] body,” Longmire says. “Nor should they! You know, I’m surprised I still have a job, because that’s one of the things that I cannot stand, when a girl walks in looking like a kid who’s growing into a woman and is calling herself fat.” But still, for confidence sake, a good side cut-out can help. And for a not especially artistic skater, one with stunning technical skills and the soul of, well, an average 16-year-old? A costume can add a little artistry, suggest a character, hint at a story that maybe isn’t otherwise 100 percent all there.
An outfit that can do all that does not come cheap. (Let us not forget, as we learned this year: It also has to stay on.) It has been a long time since figure skating legend Dorothy Hamill won Olympic gold in a $120 homemade dress the Boston Globe described as “exciting as a bedsheet.” (In the interest of fairness: That’s roughly $444 in 2018 dollars.) Now, everyone agrees, it’s a multiple of that. Different designers have different business models, and different pricing systems, but generally you’re looking at $1,500 to $3,000 per garment. It is an insane amount of money. It is also, if you break down the labor by hour, hardly enough. A Longmire dress takes 120 hours, start to finish (she does not have assistants). Then add the $300 to $400 in crystals per dress. “Really, there’s a bunch of reasons people don’t do this,” she laughs.
It’s a personal calculous. She could charge more, yeah, but then “I would definitely not work with the people I want to work with, for the most part.” A lot of her best skaters don’t come from $5,000 a dress kind of money — “not that they’re poor. If you’re poor, you don’t have a kid on the ice” — so she doesn’t charge that, and doesn’t make that.
But in keeping with our theme, there’s no one way to do anything. “I’m famous for being very expensive,” Tania Bass tells me, proudly. “They know that the reason is between a Mercedes and a Volkswagen.
“If the dress is all Swarovski, the stones could cost as much as $2,000 by themselves, even before I apply labor, and this and that,” she says. “I don’t think of a limit of money to make something beautiful.” She is, she says, the Judith Leiber of costumes; her eyesight is starting to go from the strain.
But it’s worth it, she says. When you go out on the ice encrusted in her crystals, “you feel superior, you feel bigger than life, you feel like a star.”
So costumes definitely don’t matter, except that costumes do kind of matter, and at best they cost more than $1,000, and are generally worn only a fat handful of times. You could ask, what’s the point? People do. “Aspects like ‘expression of the music’s style, character, and rhythm’ are already difficult enough to reflect numerically,” laments Tracy O’Neill at The Atlantic. “When a judge attempts to measure a quality as subjective as style, how can the costume not affect his or her opinion?” The problem isn’t that judges are judging on costumes — they’re not — but rather that costumes are just one more factor to muddle an already-muddled scoring system.
“There is currently too much onus on judges to separate the character encoded in a costume from the skater’s ability to encode the character through the movements of her body,” she writes, advocating that the sport — which is inherently deeply subjective — adopt some kind of uniform. Skating would stay artistic, she promises, but the artistry would be “delivered through the skater’s movements, not the genius of his tailor.” At ESPN, Paul Lukas worries that the ISU’s emphasis on “subjective factors” in scoring could unfairly penalize skaters who can’t afford fancy costumes (have you seen I, Tonya?), or skaters who aren’t as conventionally attractive. “Surely Nike or Under Armor could design something with a bit of flair while keeping it sporty and classy,” he writes. Surely.
“Oh, that’s so stupid,” Johnson says, when I ask her if maybe skating would be fairer if they all wore sporty-but-classy regulation outfits. “Because here’s the thing: it’s not the bobsled team!” The costume, she argues, is “all part of the presentation. Without a costume, it just loses something. Nobody who actually skates wants a uniform. Trust me, these people are all delusional.”
Also, there’s this: Who, exactly, is going to watch this new uniformed sport? For all its artistry and athleticism, skating is somewhat inscrutable to the untrained viewer. It’s all amazing! They jump! They spin! They jump and then spin! But the thing is, most of us have no reference for jumping. She jumped... up? It is all like magic.
“You would have nobody in the stands,” Longmire says. “As soon as you get everybody there in pretty stuff, it becomes watchable. Otherwise, why would anybody care? Did you do a trip[le], or was that a quad?” People don’t know! For the lay viewer, who is me and likely you, the costumes are an entry point: Assuming everyone lands smoothly, I do not trust myself to differentiate between a triple and a quad. But I do feel very confident in my ability to identify the color blue. “It’s the costuming and the music that make it watchable at all,” Longmire continues. “Like if you went into See’s Candy, and everything looked like a little brown nothing and there was no difference, you’d go, ‘Why should I care?’”