While the 2014 Winter Olympics have been landmark in a number of ways – Women’s Ski Jumping, Team Figure Skating, #sochiproblems – one thing they’re NOT going to be remembered for is fashion. With the exception of former skater turned commentator, Johnny Weir – whose flamboyant attire blatantly challenges Putin’s anti-gay laws – most of the fashion coming out of Sochi is the equivalent of a beige pump: safe yet forgettable.
But that hasn’t always been the case.
In fact, many Olympic darlings have started fashion trends copied the world over, including:
Sonja was just eleven years old when she competed in the first Winter Olympics in 1924. She went on to win three consecutive gold metals for women’s figure skating at the 1928, 1932, and 1936 Olympics, and ten consecutive World Titles, from 1927-1936 – a record that remains to this day. A born athlete, Sonja also excelled at skiing, tennis, swimming, and horseback riding.
Born in Norway to a prominent furrier, Sonja was crafted into the first female sports celebrity by private tutors and image makers. She was the first to adopt the short skating skirt and wear white boots, and her innovative skating techniques and glamorous demeanor transformed the world of ice skating.
She headed to Hollywood after her last Olympics and starred in a dozen movies over the next twenty years. In between films, she toured in an ice review – the precursor to the Ice Capades – and had dozens of endorsement deals for skates, clothing, jewelry, dolls, etc. At the height of her fame in the 1940’s, she was making $2 million a year.
Although Esther Williams did not compete in an Olympics – the 1940 games for which she trained were canceled due to World War II – I’m including her in this list because like Sonja Henie, she transformed her sport. Esther made swimming glamorous, and she got women swimming like no one else had. MGM even created the “aqua-musical” just for her, to showcase her talents and give audiences another athletic alternative to Sonja Henie.
“I always thought that a swimsuit was the least amount of clothing you can wear in public, so it better look good!” said Esther, who launched her own swimwear line in the 1960’s. Fifty years later, her retro styles are still turning heads – and selling well.
Peggy Fleming’s first place win at the 1968 Olympics was bittersweet. It was the only gold metal won by the United States in Grenoble, but it marked the comeback of the U.S. Figure Skating program after the tragic loss of the entire U.S. Figure Skating team in a plane crash in February, 1961.
Peggy was beautiful and talented and made ice skating look easy. Fans couldn’t get enough. 1968 marked the first time the Olympics were broadcast in color, and Peggy, with her dark hair and patrician looks, was a media sensation. She graced the cover of Life Magazine, signed a $500,000 contract with the Ice Follies, and won an Emmy Award for her Here’s Peggy Fleming television special, in which she wore Bob Mackie-designed the costumes. Later, she enjoyed a long career as an author and ice skating commentator.
These days, she’s regarded as the architect of modern figure skating, making it the glamorous marquee sport of the Winter Olympics that it is today.
One of Peggy’s early team mates was fashion designer Vera Wang. When Vera failed to make the 1968 Olympic team, she turned her attention to fashion. She designed Nancy Kerrigan’s costumes for the 1994 Olympics.
Dorothy Hamill became America’s darling a the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck. Not only were fans enamored with her skating, they absolutely LOVED her hairstyle. Short and bouncy, it looked beautiful when she did her signature spin, the “Hamill Camel.” Women the world over ran to their hairdressers to get the “Hamill Wedge.”
Dorothy was shocked by the reaction. She’d visited Japanese hairstylist Yusuke Suga at his Manhattan salon the night before she flew to Innsbruck, and he’d created the style then. It made both of them world famous.
Dorothy went on to land numerous endorsement deals, including one for White Rain hair products. She toured with the Ice Capades, had a Dorothy Hamill doll, and has books and and DVDs about skating. She’s tied with Mary Lou Retton as America’s favorite athlete.
Fourteen year old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci walked into the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics a relative unknown, and left an international superstar. As the first athlete to ever receive a perfect “10” at the Olympics, Nadia and her coach, Bela Karolyi, changed gymnastics forever. She may have worn her hair in a pony tail with a white ribbon – the traditional color of innocence – but every move she made was calculated to take the sport to the next level.
Nadia appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated all in the same week. She was named the Associated Press’s 1976 “Female Athlete of the Year.” After ABC sports reporter Robert Riger created a montage of Nadia accompanied by the song “Cotton’s Dream,” the song became a top 10 hit and the composers renamed it “Nadia’s Theme.” It won a Grammy in 1977.
Had Nadia been from a western country, she would have had her pick of endorsement deals. But because she was from the Eastern Bloc, cashing in wasn’t an option. She returned to Romania and retired after the 1980 Olympics.
Nadia defected to Montreal in 1989, a few weeks before the fall of the Ceausescu regime. She toured and promoted gymnastics apparel, and became a model for Jockey. Today she’s married to former Olympic gymnast Bart Conner, and they run the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy in Norman, OK.
The world wasn’t sure what to make of East German figure skater Katarina Witt. Beautiful, talented, and not afraid of controversy, she burst onto the scene with the 1984 Olympics and walked away with the gold metal that Rosalynn Sumners had been favored to win. She repeated the upset at the 1988 games, winning the “Battle of the Carmens” against American Debbie Thomas, and becoming the only woman besides Sonja Henie to win back-to-back figure skating gold metals.
But not without controversy. The over-the-top fashions of the 1980’s made it to the skating rink, and after Katarina appeared at the 1988 World Championships in a partially sheer skating outfit that barely covered her bum, the International Skating Union instituted the “Katarina Rule,” which dictated that a skirt covering hips and posterior was required for ladies’ competition. It remained in effect for 15 years.
Katarina went on to have a lucrative modeling and acting career, and even appeared in Playboy. Today, she’s still modeling, acting, and skating in Germany.
Kristi Yamaguchi and Midori Ito were neck-and-neck going into Albertville in 1992. Kristi was graceful and athletic; Midori was a jumping powerhouse. Their styles were as different as night and day. When it was all over, Kristi won gold, Midori won silver – and as the first two women of Asian descent to ever metal in ice skating, they changed the face of the sport forever. Today nearly one third of all competitive ice skaters are of Asian descent.
Kristi in now an author, sports commentator, and philanthropist, and in 2012, she launched her own line of activewear, Tsu.ya, with part of the proceeds going to her Always Dream Foundation literacy program.
Tennis champion Chris Evert was playing in the 1987 U.S. Open when the clasp on her diamond bracelet broke and the piece went flying. She asked the officials to stop the game so she could find it. They did. That style of bracelet was renamed “the tennis bracelet” that day, it sparked a trend, and has become a classic staple in a well-stocked woman’s jewelry wardrobe.
Chris was eliminated early in the 1988 Olympics and she retired in 1989, but her contributions to tennis – and to jewelry – remain.
Runner Florence Griffith-Joyner became a standout in the 1988 Summer Olympics with both her speed and outrageous fashion. Lace, neon, one-legged, and with long fingernails, “Flo Jo” was the one in the colorful clothes running way ahead of everyone else. It made her an instant hit in Seoul.
It also made her controversial. When she broke every speed record held by women, critics demanded drug tests. They all came back clean, and her records hold to this day.
But Flo Jo was no stranger to challenges. Born into poverty and raised in a housing project, she earned extra cash by doing hair and designing clothes. After the ’88 games, her style was so influential, she launched her own sportswear label, wrote a book, and had a fitness column in Parade Magazine. She was a natural celebrity and the cameras loved her.
Sadly, she died in her sleep at age 38 from an epileptic seizure.
Venus and Serena Williams
The Williams sisters have dominated tennis for over a decade. With three Olympic games and numerous tennis titles to their names, you’d think they’d be content with sports. But they aren’t.
Both sisters have fashion lines, and Venus also has an interior design firm. They write books, appear on television, and are even part owners of the Miami Dolphins. Once they retire from tennis, no telling where their interests will take them.
So…a walk down memory lane, and the big impact these women had. Most of them changed their sports for the better, and they did it with style and grace. It’s the best way to make history.
Diana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Wardrobe Magic, an ebook that shows women how to dress well whatever their age, shape, size, or budget. Download Wardrobe Magic right here.