Have you been enjoying the feats of fitness and technical triumphs of the Beijing Winter Olympics? As we marvel at the skill and agility of winter sports athletes from around the world, bedecked in aerodynamic body suits and high-tech kit, we take a look at the development of slope style and ski-wear.
When snowboarding hit the piste in the late 1980s it was very much the interloper and not at all welcome at many established and prestigious resorts. Skiing was a pastime with esteemed society connections and those who had settled into a ‘jet-set’ life of pose and party didn’t relish being sprayed by the speed freaks shredding up the slopes.
Image: 1910s ski style. Hulton Archive.
Until the mid 19th century skiing was little more than a Scandinavian method of transport in deep snow. First recorded in cave paintings dated to 2500 BC and written about in the Viking Sagas in 1000 AD, skiing was developed by the Norwegians who gradually began exporting their invention with them across Europe and the USA. Nothing is said about what these early skiers wore, except that the Norwegians used animal skins secured with birch roots for their ski bindings, becoming known as Birchlegs.
It was the Norwegian expedition led by Fridtjof Nansen to explore the interior of Greenland in 1888 that first brought skiing to the world’s attention. Previous expeditions had failed, but Nansen insisted on using skis and succeeded. The Victorians were keen to add it to their ever-growing repertoire of pastimes and took to the slopes in their warmest clothes. For gentlemen this would most likely be hunting wear with Norfolk style jackets for added flexibility. Women remained swathed in heavy woollen skirts but many wore jodhpurs underneath, and by 1917 Vogue was urging them to leave their overskirts off whilst on the slopes.
Image: Three visitors to St Moritz wearing Tyrolean hats, circa 1935.
The Olympic movement had been growing since the 1890s and in 1924 the Olympic committee were finally persuaded to grant the first winter Olympics in Chamonix. Skiing became chic and saved the demi-monde from the dull season between January and March. Although there was little change to the heavy soggy garments on the piste, Chanel’s stylish slim sportswear suits in jersey were a must for skating and sleigh rides. If fashion ignored the ski it definitely placed emphasis on the après, when glorious fringed silk gowns were teamed with white fur opera coats: the only difference from a smart evening in London or Paris was the addition of knee length fur-lined boots.
Image: France La Vie Parisienne Magazine, 1920s, The Advertising Archive.
The 1930s saw a great expansion as more resorts opened in Europe and the USA, and the Hollywood set that had colonised St Moritz could now get their practice in closer to home in Sun Valley, Squaw Falls and Aspen. The Sun Valley Ski School imported Austrian ski instructors, and along with them came the Tyrolean look with breeches or lederhosen. Culottes made an appearance with sweaters and tweedy jackets for women as early as the 1920s: but Garbo, Hepburn, and Clara Bow were depicted on screen as well as off in the far more chic tailored wool gabardine. The forerunner of the ski suit, they were – like almost every women’s style until the 1990s – designed to look cute rather than be practical.
Image: Ski style, 1950s.
The 1940s brought the parka and the reindeer sweater, and whole families could be seen donning matching gloves and bobble hats; but the problem of good ski pants still remained. The Sun Valley Clothing Company created ‘non baggy ski pants’ which were an improvement on the capacious gabardines – yet still far from svelte and sexy. The answer came in 1952 when Ski Champion Willy Bogner and his wife Maria developed a tight ski pant in a 4-way stretch fabric of wool mixed with Swiss nylon Helanca. Finally the problem of flappy wind-resistant trousers was solved. The new sleek pants were warm and flexible and looked good, especially in the Bogner’s bright colourways. In the late 40s Italian flyer Emilio Pucci took some R&R in Zermatt Switzerland, and quickly realised that if he wanted style on the slopes he’d have to design it himself. Like Chanel before him, he began experimenting with knitted fabrics to create fluid styles that would compliment a woman’s figure without constricting her. His first designs, worn on the slopes by him and his wife, were spotted by Harper’s editor Diana Vreeland who commissioned a feature and ski pants traversed into fashion.
Image: Two models at Courcheval Ski Resort, wearing ski outfits by Petti, 1962
The sleek lines were perfect for professionals but the growing numbers of ski bunnies on the nursery slopes who spent most of their time falling over needed something more weather-proof. In 1952 the Italian skiwear company Moncler began working in consultation with professional climber and skier Lionel Terray – if they could develop a range to suit his needs in extreme conditions their skiwear would be the most sophisticated and practical yet. After various experiments with Tergal, the fibre for the padding, Moncler jackets and mittens aided the success of the Italian Khartoum expedition in 1954. By 1961 they had developed the salopette. Made in the same lightweight padded material, they zipped down the outside leg to fit snugly over ski boots and the waistband came up high with braces to allow warmth, water resistance and torso movement.
Image: Iconic or infamous? The colourful skiing onesies of the 80s...
The burgeoning fitness craze of the 1980s allowed Lycra and legwarmers to make the uneasy transition from gym to high street, and the Moncler down jacket became one of Italy’s biggest trends. Ski pants became everyday wear, and neon colours, vividly patterned sweaters and headbands found their way onto the slopes. Although skiwear was largely unisex in cut, women’s wear was defined by girly colours and coordinated touches until snowboarding levelled the field. The sport was sharper and more action orientated, the requirements tougher. It was status enough to be a boarder without the need to make a fashion statement; this was a new generation without the old school connotations of wealth and privilege. Colours were simple and the emphasis fell on the latest technical innovations with fabrics such as the breathable yet waterproof Gore-Tex. Instead of padding for insulation, layering is key, with a base layer to draw moisture away from the skin and keep it warm, a breathable micro-fleece middle layer and a weatherproof ‘shell’. Outlast is the latest innovation; developed for the NASA programme it retains heat without allowing the body to overheat. The sport is about performance and achievement and so are the clothes: it finally took a ‘radical’ sport to offer not only a change in attitude but also a change in style.
Extract from the article, Slippery Slope: The Taste Travesties and Technical Triumphs of Ski Wear, written by Sarah Jane Downing in Issue 15 Wellbeing.
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