Musings from the Pontiff of Powder: Vol. 11

Scaling the Heights of Fashion
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By: The Pontiff of Powder

[Dear Reader: As I pen this musing I am recovering from Oscar night. Watching the celebrities in all their finery made me ponder, why don’t skiers, at least our stars, make a similar effort to appear, if not glamorous, at least presentable? Instead, athletes who aren’t obliged by their discipline to wear an aerodynamic body suit disappear inside outfits that look like they were made for Paul Bunyan, or maybe his ox.]

F

or one brief, glorious epoch the rarified worlds of skiing and high fashion freely intermingled. The seminal event was the introduction, in the mid-1950’s, of Maria Bogner’s inspired invention, the stretch pant. Other elastic fabrics would follow in the years to come, but Maria’s woolen stretchies already got the basic job done: limning the lines of the female derrière to perfection. Suddenly skiing was much, much more interesting. Here was a socially acceptable opportunity – in the dead of winter, no less – for women to look fabulous and men to go goggle-eyed in appreciation. The beau monde of fashion took note.

The sudden surge in skiing’s popularity during the 1960’s was fueled in part by connecting the sport in the popular imagination with glamour and celebrity. Mainstream magazines like

Look

and

Life

showed pictures of Kennedy clan members dining al fresco on sunlit ski patios with other members of the glitterati. Typical of the glossy ilk captured by the press in ski mufti were the likes of the Empress of Iran, an accomplished skier and an oft-photographed clothes horse who combined elegance on skis with haute couture, embellished with an intoxicating whiff of absolute power.

"The modern sportsman slashing backwards through the halfpipe looks like an elephant seal that lost a paintball fight."

The iconic skiers of the era were blessed with matinee idol features, including Stein Eriksen, whose perfect hair never saw a hat even when the mercury hit 20 below; Toni Sailer, who parlayed his three gold medals into a movie career in his native Austria; and the extraordinary Jean-Claude Killy who looked like Jean-Paul Belmondo and dominated his sport like Tiger Woods. All these great champions were charming, graceful, ungodly talented and vigorous promoters of the sport they helped to glamorize. Each embodied not just skill but

style

, the ability to perform at a ridiculous peak and make it appear effortless.

Taking its cues from the racing milieu that spawned these glamour-pusses, ski fashion favored trim, form-fitting profiles. The fabrics weren’t entirely weather-resistant, and there were other drawbacks like in-the-boot pants that would chafe shins until they were as raw as steak tartare, but skiers on the whole looked good in their gear. Someone figured out how to extend women’s stretch pants all the way up to the chest, framing their breasts like trophies, putting exclamation points on the whole purpose of the exercise. As men are simple beings, this style of stretch bib was sufficient to lure several hundred thousand of our number to the mountains in search of ogle-worthy outfits.

As good as skiers looked on the slopes, they looked even better when they suited up for the sybaritic rituals of the après ski scene, where fashion took center stage. Soggy ski togs were verboten; people

dressed

for après ski, in everything from Pucci prints the colors of tropical fruits to Saint Laurent pantsuits that cost as much as a yacht. One drank high-octane cocktails while nibbling Provencal canapés crafted from the local cheese. Dinner would arrive just in time to preserve decorum, often served in a casual fashion befitting the rustic setting. After all, these were

skiers

, roughing it in the wilds, even if the biggest risks they faced were fondue stains on suede and Chateau Lafitte streaks in silk.

But I digress. The point is that on-slope attire was as functional as the fabrics of the era allowed and generally flattered the physique of the athletic sorts who populated the sport. Nowadays the athletes are more amazing than ever, but aside from the recherché racing elite, the clothes they wear are so ill-fitting and garish that the modern sportsman slashing backwards through the halfpipe looks like an elephant seal that lost a paintball fight. What the hell happened?

The answer, of course, is “a lot.” The knee-jerk temptation is to blame snowboarding, but one might as well blame it on the demise of Big Hair. Snowboarding, in fact, almost got it perfectly right. In its early days, when few areas would even allow them on the hill, there was a moment when female riders wore form-fitting body suits. I’m sure more ski areas would have adopted the renegade sport if they had been aware of this micro-trend, but sadly this fragile moment passed quickly and soon that same young woman would be wearing an ensemble so ludicrously outsized that she could easily shoplift a mountain bike and several hams without detection. In today’s housing crisis, it’s worth remembering that a couple of indigent families could find shelter in a single snowboarding outfit, most likely without disturbing the host.

One of the evolutionary dead ends – like the sponge, for those of you taking notes – spawned by ski fashionistas of the day was the neon look. For some reason science has never been able to explain, a brand out of England of all places, Nevica, was allowed to set a trend. Oy. The colors were so searingly bright they caused retina damage. If you have a picture of yourself in one of these get-ups you may want to destroy it lest it appear on the Internet and ruin your life. What remains of this misbegotten epoch are now being worn by chain installers on Donner Pass, so motorists can make them out from outer space.

Somewhere between then and now there was introduced the one-piece suit. In principle, a clever idea for keeping you and the weather separate, particularly on powder days. The one-piece suit was in turn introduced to technical fabrics, meaning ones that didn’t breathe or bend, in color blocks that would not look out of place on the deck of a crabbing vessel. One-pieces proved irresistible to designers when it came to macaw-bright colors and senseless accents, creating ensembles in goldenrod – helpful if you’re trying to attract canaries – and elegant sheaths in anthracite and hot pink with epaulets any Park Avenue doorman would envy. Eventually the complexities of technical fabrics were figured out and now almost all mountain wear is well adapted for harsh weather. Neon, on the other hand, is gone, probably forever. Maybe there is a God after all.

One casualty of ski fashion’s lurch into the modern age was the wool sweater, which was supplanted by fleece, the ski public apparently preferring to wear recycled soda bottles rather than a recycled sheep suit. The switch from wool to fleece represented progress, as the latter provided superior insulation with less bulk. Fleece was also a more versatile fabric, and therein laid the problem. Somehow a designer with a seething resentment against all skiers became locked in a fleece storage closet; when authorities discovered the deranged couturier he was wearing a stitched-together headdress with an eerie resemblance to moose antlers (it was dark in the closet so the first effort was primitive, but the damage was done). Soon skiers across America were wearing head gear meant to simulate the appearance of all kinds of creatures, assuming said animals wanted to look like morons.

Because children cannot defend themselves, many kids found themselves disguised as small critters, their parents apparently hoping that some wild animal would swoop out of the forest and adopt them. Because of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which abductees identify with their captors, some children may actually have

wanted

to look like a tiny Tyrannosaurus, but there is absolutely no excuse for Dad to look like someone stapled an octopus to his helmet. Show some self-respect, please.

Looking back, it’s possible to identify myriad factors that led to the divorce of skiing and high fashion. The demise of the communal ski lodge in favor of the fragmentation of the condominium meant less mingling after skiing, ergo less need to dress up, ergo ciao Armani, hello sweat suit. Fashion came to mean non-technical, meaning wet. When the luminous catwalk model Carol Alt stopped being the annual ski mags’ back-cover icon for Obermeyer, a light flickered and went out.

But as has been true since Biblical times, just when one fears that hope is lost the pendulum silently starts to swing in the opposite direction. I recently attended a gala in Park City at the behest of one Greg Stump, the legendary ski cineaste, who not coincidentally was screening a teaser for his upcoming movie, the much-anticipated

Legend of Aahhhs

. Also on the evening’s agenda was a fashion show sponsored by

SNOW

magazine, and if the outfits there displayed are any kind of harbinger of what the future holds, then it is definitely worth sticking around, at least for another winter. It didn’t harm the presentation that the models looked like products of DNA experiments that went alarmingly right; but there was also no denying that the fashions complemented their well-engineered shapes. Men and women were clearly identifiable as same, a system which has several proven advantages.

Even the Pontiff cannot predict how successful any of these brave labels will be. I realize that any alliance between high fashion and skiing will only exacerbate the perception that skiing is an elitist sport (no dodging that bullet), but adding glamour and good looks (a formula that hasn’t hurt Hollywood) can only help popularize a sport that is already inherently beautiful. Skiing will always have a place in its heart for the neophyte dressed in blue jeans or the techno-geek at your local area who looks ready to scale Everest, and if you want to look like you slept under a bridge, with your sleeping bag still loosely attached to your body, that’s your business. But life is short, and it only makes sense to surround oneself with sensual pleasures where one can. Even if you can’t afford swanky ski clothes, you can afford to look at them. And that makes the mountain just a little more fun to ski on.

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