Feb. 25, 2010 -- 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.
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."
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.
"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.
Weir designs his costumes himself, and, according to the NBC Olympics Web site, he plans to pursue clothing design after he retires from skating "so he can 'conquer the world through fashion.""
Weir said during an NBC interview that when he gets into his costume he wants to feel ready to skate.
"When you put your costume on it's like, 'I am ready for this competition,'" Weir told NBC. "This is who I am, I have turned into a swan or a beaver or a rocket scientist."
And some figure-skating costume designers hope that Weir's style is where competitive skating design is heading.
"Johnny's costumes are outrageous but they are also gorgeous," Bass said. "Johnny is so well-loved that people don't look at what he is wearing as disgusting, which is a big change for the better. Once we get over this fascination with crazy costumes, it will be like, 'What's the big deal?'"
Collaborating with Famous Designers
The American Evan Lysacek, who broke Russia's two-decade winning streak by taking this year's gold medal in men's figure skating, collaborated with the famous designer Vera Wang in the creation of his costume.
Can we expect a new trend in which male skaters work with couture designers? Bass and Billings say they don't think so.
"Evan's costumes were beautifully made and they fit the music, but I don't think we will see Seventh Avenue designers designing for the ice anytime soon," Billings said. "The difference with Vera and why she is successful is because she used to be a skater herself. Vera knows what she is doing from a mechanical standpoint and she is an exception."
Bass said that even "accomplished designers don't know everything that applies to dressing skaters. Only a designer that has specialized in the discipline can do it"
Women Skaters Cool on the Ice -- And In Their Clothes
During the 1992 and 1994 Olympic games Nancy Kerrigan, who received bronze and then silver, went against the "Flash Dance"-inspired costumes of the '80s by wearing simple, short dresses designed by Vera Wang. The trend continued in 1998 with both Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan, winners of gold and silver respectively, wearing low-key blue dresses. In 2002, Sarah Hughes won gold in a short purple dress with some rhinestone detail on the top. By 2006, the bright pink fur, extravagant details and big hair inspired by Oksana Baiul were long gone.
"Girls used to have beads and feathers all over their costumes," Billings said. "But now we are seeing more tasteful costumes and costumes that look more like clothing."
Blogger Szabo described the women figure skaters as trending towards glamour: "I think we are going to see the women continuing to be a little bit more sophisticated, in part because their programs are becoming more sophisticated and the costuming is a response to that."
Bass predicts costuming for both genders will eventually strike a balance between simple and the flashy.
"Skaters spend hours and hours perfecting their skating and all people do is laugh at the costumes," Bass said. "We will find a middle where the costumes will still be different and special, but also tasteful."
In the end, said Billings, what matters is how the skaters themselves feel in their costumes, regardless of what the public thinks.
"I have always felt that the worst costumes can end up at the top of the podium and some of the best can still come in last," Billings said. "If the skaters feel like they look good, then they will skate good."