The Case Against Fancy Figure-Skating Outfits

Eye-catching costumes can unfairly influence judges as they evaluate the abstract side of a skater's performance. It might be time for the sport to implement a stricter dress code.

At the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan wore a plain white Vera Wang skating dress when she narrowly lost a gold medal to Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul—whose feathery pink dress resembled glamorous, half-plucked poultry. That night, because four judges placed Kerrigan first, four placed Baiul first, and one judge tied the two, gold and silver were decided by the tie-breaker: the Artistic Merit score.

The judge who’d tied the two skaters, Jan Hoffman, ranked Baiul higher in Artistic Merit, and she won Olympic gold. Kerrigan’s dress was, to many people, more beautiful. However, watching the two performances, the relationship between Baiul’s flashy flamingo-pink getup and her Broadway medley music is far clearer than that between Kerrigan’s shimmery white dress and the Neil Diamond music of her long program.

Did Hoffman rank Baiul higher artistically because her costuming signified a more pointed relationship to her music? Perhaps not. Baiul is, after all, one of the most remarkable performers ever to take the ice.

But we may never know for sure.

Denis Paquin and Doug Mills / AP

And that’s the problem. Figure skating combines artistry and athleticism, elegance and punishing physical feats. Skaters bravely launch themselves off of ice with sharp metal objects affixed to their feet, and are expected to do so with musicality. This hybrid nature is one reason the sport is so alluring. But in figure skating competitions, costumes can be an unfair influence on judges as they evaluate some of the more abstract criteria on their score sheets. Aspects like “Expression of the music's style, character and rhythm” are already difficult enough to reflect numerically. When a judge attempts to measure a quality as subjective as style, how can the costume not affect his or her opinion? How can a judge know whether Skater A is artistically evocative than Skater B, when Skater A is wearing a simple white dress and Skater B looks like she’s wearing a sparkly avian fetus?

One answer to the call for objectivity is that it’s time for the Olympics and the world governing bodies of skating to try something new—like a standardized dress code.

Currently, according to International Skating Union (ISU) Rule 500,

the clothing of the Competitors 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.

The ISU elaborates on the issue of modesty, explaining, “The clothing must not give the effect of excessive nudity for athletic sport.” That’s a befuddling qualification when one considers that the preferred attire of female skaters is essentially a pair of panties with a tiny, non-functional miniskirt attached. Ironically, male skaters are not allowed to wear shorts. What’s perhaps more troubling, though, is the confused language that prohibits theatricality but condones reflecting a character. Is a dirndl-style dress theatrical if the athlete is skating to Volksmusik, or is that simply portraying the character of the music? If the dirndl is blue and white lozenge patterned, is it garish or just interpreting the Bavarian flag?

It might surprise spectators who find skating apparel both garish and theatrical that costume infractions can cost the skater 1.0 point, a significant penalty for a sport that measures to the hundredth of a point. For a small piece of plastic, the sequin can make a big difference.

Jan Longmire, a California-based designer of skating dresses, says she knows by instinct what is acceptable. Her intricate beadwork and fluttery skirts have attracted an elite clientele including two-time national champion Ashley Wagner, an American contender at the Sochi Games.

Of course, the instinct of Longmire, a 30-year veteran, is not the instinct of every would-be costumer. More importantly, tastefulness is registered quite differently across class and cultures. “I may say the Russians sometimes don’t quite adhere to [Rule 500],” Longmire said carefully. “But it’s kind of a subjective thing, because to [one person] garish is not really that bad and to someone else you would have to come out like Oscar the Grouch or something to be considered garish.”

Robin Wagner, who coached Olympic champion Sarah Hughes, agrees that the subjectivity makes costuming difficult to navigate. “I think it’s sometimes difficult with cultural differences. What appears very chic and exciting and exquisite for an eastern European skater may not appeal to an American audience and vice versa,” she said.

“Just as music has different style and appeals to different audiences and judges, I think the same is true of costume choices. So I think the first hurdle is, How does one skater come up with something that is appealing more universally?”

The difference, then, between becoming an Olympic champion—that is, a life of endorsements, skating tours, and lucrative television commentary gigs—and becoming someone who once was a very good athlete could, hypothetically, come down to whether you’ve successfully deciphered which textile transcends national borders, or correctly guessed how orange spangles translate to an international panel of judges.

Costume penalties are rare, however. Judging figure skating has never made anyone rich, and those who become skating officials generally do so because they love figure skating; most don’t want to ruin a life over an audacious neckline. The greatest problem that costumes pose isn’t that they might exact a penalty but that they make it more difficult to equitably judge the Components score, which measures a skater’s artistic merit and overall caliber of skating. And of late, judging has already become a painstaking act of critical calculus.

German ice dancers Nelli Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi perform at the ISU Grand Prix Rostelekom Cup event, in Moscow, Russia, in 2012. (Ivan Sekretarev / AP)

Until 2004, the skating federation used an opaque 6.0 judging system in which judges could give skaters any mark between 0 and 6 (to the tenth of a point) for technical merit and artistic merit, except in the case of a few mandatory deductions. Though there had been criteria, accountability was limited, and the system was vulnerable to abuse. Then a judging scandal at the Salt Lake City Games resulted in the 6.0 system getting replaced with a new Scale of Values scoring system. In the new system, each of a skater’s moves, or “elements,” is awarded a base value of points in order to function with greater transparency. When a triple Lutz has a precise value of 6.0 points, the argument goes, there isn’t room for numbers to be fudged.

Yet figure skating is not soccer. A triple Salchow is not a simple goal, or three-point shot, or home run. A triple Salchow can be landed, not landed, barely landed, very subtly cheated, done well, done superbly, done poorly, and everything in between. (For 20 years, skating fans have argued over whether the awkward double toe loop Oksana Baiul completed at the end of her Olympic long program should have resulted in a greater penalty on her technical merit mark or whether it ought to have been a boon, one extra jump to make her program that much more difficult.) Which is why the new scoring system allots base values for each element but allows for points to be to be added or deducted based on Grade of Execution.

The scoring only becomes more complicated once you consider the “second mark”—the half of the judging criteria reserved for Program Components, or Presentation, which the ISU defines as “Skating Skills, Transitions/Linking Footwork and Movement, Performance/Execution, Choreography/Composition, Interpretation of the music.” The 26 (or in pairs skating, 33) criteria for these Components ranges from the concrete “Balance, rhythmic knee action and precision of foot placement” to utterly abstract qualities like “Purpose (idea, concept, vision, mood)” and “Use of finesse to reflect the nuances of the music.”

Jan Longmire remembers the team effort to transform Ashley Wagner from a sixth-place finisher at the 2010 U.S. Championships to National champion the following year. Between seasons, Wagner worked closely with Longmire and choreographer Philip Mills to improve her “second mark”—that is, her presentation.

“He got her to put things into it,” Longmire recalls, “required her to make arm movements, hand movements, [and] head movements, so that she was actually acting while she was going from this jump to that jump. So I just costumed those parts of it that made it obvious that this particular character was wearing this costume, not because Ashley would have chosen to wear this but because that character would have chosen to wear that.

“It really was helpful, so she told me, in her Presentation points, that she showed up basically in costume.”

So it’s possible that a good costume does not influence the judge as much as it helps the skater move expressively. When a skater believes she looks like she represents the music, she may, in fact, represent the music more fully.

Italians Barbara Fusar Poli andMaurizio Margaglio in the Ice Dancing final at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games . (Mark Baker / AP)

And the assertion that costumes may help or hinder a skater’s Components mark is one that many in the skating world resist. Robin Wagner does: She can’t remember a judge ever saying that a costume swayed a decision.

This is something of a chicken-or-egg question, however, and what’s clear is that there currently is too much onus on judges to separate the character encoded in a costume from the skater’s ability to encode character through the movements of her body. Certain Components criteria, such as “clarity of movement,” are perhaps even obscured by some costumes. A judge cannot accurately determine how a skater articulates her movements when billowing chiffon or ruffles obscure the body’s natural lines. One need only remember 1994 Olympic champion Alexei Urmanov’s infamous quasi-winged Swan Lake costume or pretty much anything the drape-crazed Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio ever wore to realize that costumes can very easily conceal what’s happening beneath them.

I don’t suggest that figure skating costumes should entirely disappear. Skating exhibitions or ice theater productions, mediums that exist purely for entertainment, are the perfect arena for the work of skilled and talented designers. The problem with costumes in competition isn’t the costumes themselves. It’s that sometimes they’re a little too good at producing their intended effect, when it should be the skater who performs the rendition. In competition, judges shouldn’t have to try to ignore plumage to objectively score Components.

If figure skaters were to compete in a standard-issue uniform, however, judges would grapple with one less variable in the mess of 26 Components criteria. Each skater could be required to wear the same simple attire, perhaps for example, a black dress or black pants and black shirt for women, and black pants with a black shirt for men. It would be, in essence, a control variable.

Zhang Kexin of China practices in preparation for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

This isn’t a popular opinion. Nor is it one that interests many in the skating world who fear that skating already has lost much of its artistry with the increased emphasis on racking up points by completing jumps.

“A skater should have the chance to have their costume be part of the story that they’re telling,” Robin Wagner said. “I think that’s part of the performance aspect of figure skating.”

Uniforms need not strip figure skating down to a series of tricks, however. They need simply to ensure that the performance is constituted by the caliber of the skating alone. The interpretation of the music would then be delivered through the skater’s movements, not the genius of his tailor, and a skater would never question whether her costume was the factor that kept her off a medal podium.

The new judging system was meant to reframe figure skating as a sport with credibility. Yet ultimately, the culture of figure skating has a tendency to tell a very different story to general audiences. Last month, the United States Figure Skating Association, in a break with tradition, decided to send the National pewter medalist Ashley Wagner to the Olympics in place of the bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu. In the immediate aftermath, much of the mainstream media has focused this story around the perceived injustice of the USFSA’s decision.

Andi Zeisler of Bitch inferred that Wagner had been granted an Olympic berth because of her many cosmetics endorsements. Jeff Yang at the Wall Street Journal questioned whether Nagasu was overlooked because her Japanese-American heritage offended a milk maid American ideal, while “Wagner’s flowing blond hair, bellflower-blue eyes and sculpted features mark her as a sporting archetype.” In other words, the story that would emerge was not that a two-time national champion had been sent to the Olympics for her history of consistent achievement over a skater whose  performances had left her ranked seventh nationally two years running. The story that would emerge was that in figure skating competitions what matters is not how you skate but how you look.

Such theories might never have tarnished the reputation of a worthy athlete—Ashley Wagner—had the ISU taken a stronger stance in the rulebook. So if the governing body hopes to confer legitimacy to figure skating as a sport, both for its image to the outside world and for the benefit of its skaters, it will need to make the hard decision to regulate the sport's Lycra and sequins—to make clear that figure skating competitions are not spectacles of glitter but meritocracies.