Ghosts of Nijinksy

Fashion and its victims.
Feb. 26 1998 3:30 AM

Ghosts of Nijinksy

Ice skating's new fashion hysteria.

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Figure skating began to captivate me and my friends when we were 8. We watched Sonja Henie in the movies, we were taken to ice shows, we took lessons, and we had strong views about what we wished to wear while practicing our axels at the public rink. Figure skating wasn't a real sport, comradely and combative like children's ice hockey, which we played in boring skates and unlovely clothes on a frozen pond. It was a romantic and competitive display, emphatically a girl thing. Adorable outfits were a large part of the whole idea.

They obviously still are, and not just for girls. My interest in skating withered and died before I was 12, but my evergreen interest in outfits keeps me staring avidly at what is being worn on the ice at the Winter Olympics, even though I now lack much grasp of the rules of the game. I mainly notice that things have come a long way since I was 8. Classic figure skating is now complicated by the development of sensational ice dancing in several categories. The old-fashioned romantic display has been profitably invigorated with sex, fashion, and progressive technical excitement, to say nothing of unceasing soap-operatic drama played out among the participants and spun out in the media.

Women's costumes have shed all fake-Nordic touches suggesting conventional winter or conventional cuteness. Gone are the red-lined, black-velvet circular skirts worn with flower-embroidered, white sweaters; the long-sleeved, tight jackets with fur trim at neck and wrists; the little fur hats and snug bonnets. Ice isn't cold any more--it's hot. Costumes suggest the disco dance floor or the hotel ballroom, except when they're suggesting the Frederick's of Hollywood catalog, high-school Shakespeare, or outer space.

Most notable is the way men's costumes for this quasisport have largely kept their dignity, while women's have burst into hysterics. The physical risks have become very great for male ice dancers, but their clothes stay conservative. When they don't, scathing commentary appears in the press. The young Russian gold medalist Ilya Kulik got raves for his dazzling skating and nothing but scorn for the yellow-and-black giraffe-print shirt he wore, with more scorn for the gauzy wings on the abstractly designed torso of his other costume. Artur Dmitriev, another Russian gold medalist, also got negative press for his plunging neckline and wrapped sash, apparently too outrageous for pairs skating. The ghost of Vaslav Nijinsky seems to haunt these young Russians in their search for supreme skill at multiple turns in midair and in their willingness to wear brilliant super-ballet gear.

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T he Russian Ballet convention for male costume was established all over the world in the last century, and it allowed any sort of glorious finery above the waist, even with long, plain legs below. Later, under the innovative direction of Sergei Diaghilev, Nijinsky's "Rose" and "Faun" costumes, among others, gave rise to a host of abstract creations for the male body. These have appeared on the dance stage throughout this century, and are now to be seen on Damien Woetzel, Mark Morris, and others. But none of this imaginative freedom seems to have reached the ice, except on Russians.

On the other hand, a couple of weeks ago the costume of Frenchman Philippe Candeloro alluded to the tradition of theater rather than that of dance. Candeloro also avoided prolonged whirls in midair, offering some dashing 17th-century mimed swordplay instead. Thigh-high black boots rose startlingly up from his skates, set off by a laced-up white doublet with big slashed sleeves and a big collar. His long hair and mustache, his black gloves, and his sturdy, buff-clad behind made his leaps and lunges most historical, the whole thing being quite rare for a free-style skating solo. He called it "D'Artagnan," but it could have been Cyrano, or anybody in Molière. Shakespeare was gaudily invoked a few days later by a French couple doing "Romeo and Juliet" in matching bright blue, bejeweled Renaissance outfits.

But in most cases the ballroom convention governs the clothes for traditional pairs skating and affects ice dancing too, keeping male ice performers looking fairly sober. Men's skating costumes are strictly simple and symmetrical, beginning with long, black trousers that invoke Fred Astaire, even when worn with a loose, rolled-sleeved, open-necked black shirt, or with various Star Trek effects above the waist. Male skating costume, like male evening dress, is still meant to offset the fantastic extremes of the women's costumes, which run to exposure, asymmetry, and fluttering ornament, just like Ginger Rogers' dancing dresses in the early 1930s. Sparkles now seem OK for everything, even for men's black pants and neat jackets. Metallic fabric, rhinestones, or sequins may coat both him and her, the better to mesmerize us equally as we track them flashing past. Not for skates, though--no glitz on the business end.

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There is an astonishing array of inventions in women's costumes, where all the most dangerous aesthetic risks are currently being taken. But some things are constant. For pairs skating, women's skates must be white, and unfortunately very big. These used to look fine with fur-trimmed jackets, but they look quite different with mini-ball-dresses or virtual underwear, and they looked grotesque on tiny Oksana Baiul in her pink swan-queen outfit at Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994--the too-direct reference to traditional ballet suddenly made her skates look ungainly. For ice dancing, skates are often flesh-colored to match the tights, and the leg may sweep all the way to the end.

Costumes have more scope, however; some tend toward approximations of current fashion, with many ponytails, little bandeaux under boleros, and several bare midriffs, along with S&M trappings in better or worse arrangements, and a range of recent and remote historical allusions. Whatever the costume, it must go with tights and skates, it should enhance the skater's performance, and the rules say it must have a skirt. But this can mean two panels fore and aft, eight overlapping panels, a flippy circle, a foot-long sheath with a slit, a stiff 6-inch flange, a knee-length drift of chiffon. Above the waist, we might see an asymmetrical patch of salmon pink and another of black making one breast look heavy and the other one look absent; or we can see the simple black-velvet scoop-neck top above the fluttering yellow silk skirt worn by Oksana Kazakova, the two colors perfectly balanced by the two flashing white skates below. A dress in any bright single color tends to be great; two colors in several patchy sections tends to be dreadful, especially when mixed with patches of bare skin. Slanted hemlines are bad; slit skirts are good. A ponytail with a lot of feathers or fluff holding it together is no good; hair that neatly caps the head, whether in a bob or a bun, is very good. Anything that looks as if it might get in a partner's mouth and eyes or slap his face is bad; any material that caresses the thighs is better than a fabric that smacks them. I could go on; but I'll wait until next winter.

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