Vancouver Olympics: In Figure Skating, Women Go Classy, Men Stay Flashy

It's not often in sports commentary that you hear anyone say, "He rocked the tassel."

But in the highest level of competitive figure skating, the Winter Olympics, that was how figure-skater-turned-commentator Scott Hamilton described Johnny Weir's "spectacular short program" last Thursday.

Fans have always been curious about skaters' costumes. But this year, more people are paying attention to the men's outfits than the women's.

Why? Today's male figure skaters are imitating previous winners -- who wore flashy, bold, outfits at a time when few others would take the risk. The women, on the other hand, have gradually toned down their look. And judging from this year's most successful skaters, the men's outfits are only going to get more elaborate.

Jef Billings, a figure skating costume designer for 18 years and the current director of the Smucker's Stars on Ice Tour, has designed outfits for such stars as Dorothy Hamill and Kristi Yamaguchi.

"When someone does well and wins, I think people pay attention and try to emulate what they see as a successful formula," he said.

Sparkles and Feathers and Ruffles: Oh My!

When the Russians dominated men's figure skating at every Olympics from 1992 to 2006, Billings said, the rest of the world responded by emulating their style and flamboyant dress. As a result, men's ice fashion has become much more colorful over the past decade.

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In 1992, gold-medal winner Viktor Petrenko of Russia wore a bright purple top with gold fringe. At the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan, Russian gold medalist Ilia Kulik wore a yellow and black cow-print shirt under a white vest with black accents.

By 2006, the Russian look had started to trickle into the routines of performers from other countries. The silver medalist, Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland, wore a zebra-print top with sleeves of mixed bright orange and blue swirls.

"It's like when a tennis player wins with a different kind of racquet," Billings said. "And then everyone starts to use that kind of racquet. Every competitor wants to win, so they emulate the winner's style to some extent."

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Gold Medalist Evan Lysacek

Are Men's Figure Skating Costumes Distracting?

Billings said the extravagance of Russian costumes is a matter of culture.

"Their taste is very different than Americans," Billings said. "The taste in Europe is more high fashion and outrageous."

Tania Bass, another figure-skating costume designer who has made outfits for Sarah Hughes, Irina Slutskaya and Michael Weiss, said the Russians treat the ice like a stage.

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"They consider it art and that is where their costumes come from," she said.

Some lifelong fans, like Julie Szabo, a figure skating blogger, think that whatever the reason, some of the men's costumes are getting too creative.

"I think it takes away from the skating when the skater comes out with crazy costumes," Szabo said. "So much time and effort is spent designing the perfect programs but sometimes the same consciousness is not put into the costumes."

Johnny Weir, the man whose costumes everyone has been talking about this season, removed the fur from his free skate costume at the request of animal rights activists, but still raised eyebrows with his short-program costume. It included a black corset and that now-famous pink tassel.

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Speedskating 101 on the Olympic Oval

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