History of Ski Wear Part One

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Photo by Roger Schall, Vogue, December 1938

The Christmas tinsel and New Years glint has been packed away. Settling into winter’s longest stretch without the hazy mirth of the clinquant season can be disheartening. But consider this silver lining: Ski Season. A schuss down snowy slopes invigorates the spirit through bright air and long views. And for those of us less tickled by the steep side of a mountain, there is the draw of an activity that requires an entirely specialized wardrobe. It is dress defined by volume – quantity, quality, luxury and bulk. The fabrics are innovative (padding and stretch), the layers dense (rich knits, cashmeres and furs), color palettes unexpected (neons and prints), and the accessories novel (moonboots and goggles).

Skiwear is one of the most distinct categories of dress, bordering on costume. It has been shaped by two distinct influences. The first is practical – retaining warm and ease of movement. The second is economic; skiing has traditionally been a sport for the class of largesse. Ski towns developed as enclaves of the wealthy jet set, globetrotting from St. Barths to St. Moritz, Acapulco to Gstaad. The aesthetic of après ski evolved around the glamour of high society. These two disparate influences create a fascinating intersection between function and fashion. As specialized gear, skiwear has existed on the margins of fashion, yet many designers have avidly picked it up, infusing ski clothes with the style of the times. In turn, skiwear elements have seeped into the mainstream wear. Take a look at the reciprocal relationship in our history of skiwear.  

The origins of skiing are found in modern day Norway and Sweden. The word comes from the Old Norse “skíð” which means, “split piece of wood or firewood”. Skiing was originally a means of transportation in a part of the world that was blanketed in an icy down for the better part of the year. The Norwegian military used skiing for training, and by the middle of the 19th century, competitions were open to the public. Recreational skiing gained popularity. An unprecedented dissemination of information in the second half of the century primed the world for the Nordic sport. At the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the Norwegian pavilion featured a display of skis that proved an instant success. Norwegian immigrants took the tradition anyplace that offered mountains and snow – the Alps, the Andes, the Rockies and the Great Dividing Range of Australia. Soon these areas would embrace the sport as their own.


(L) Exposition Universelle Norway Pavilion, 1878. (R) Woman in Ski Skirt, 1900.


Fashion was undergoing its own change during this time. Tailor John Redfern launched a couture house that produced clothing specifically designed for sport: tennis, riding, yachting, and archery. Women eagerly embraced this departure from frou-frou and the streamlined designs, dubbed tailor-mades, were so popular they were adopted into everyday wear. The skirts worn by early female skiers were in this turn-of-the-century style, popularized by the Gibson Girl. Men’s skiwear was also influenced by current trends in cut and fabric, as well as the rugged pieces worn by mountaineers on expeditions.

If the Norwegians invented the technique of skiing, the Austrians invented its style. Mathias Zdarsky and Hannes Schneider innovated new techniques that elevated skiing to a popular competitive sport. Soon, it was virtually indistinguishable from Austrian culture, including the folk dress aesthetic. Lederhosen, trachten and dirndls were adopted into ski clothing style, along with an earthy color palette of browns, greens and reds. These were simple, practical clothes trimmed with the distinctive trim that mimicked geometric architecture and the wildflowers of the mountain meadows. Women begin to ski alongside men, and by the 1920s, many abandoned skirts for trousers (although in the late 1930s, women skiing in skirts still appeared in Vogue). The addictive sport’s appeal soon spread. As Europe’s pristine mountains opened up after the destruction of WWI, ski towns popped up across the Alps and the upperclass eagerly adopted the new sport of leisure. We find snapshots of a rugged, snowy Ernest Hemmingway in Gstaad, and the Marquis of Milford Haven escorting Princess Alexandria of Greece, her Royal Coat of Arms embroidered on her ski jack transforming through reverse livery.


(L) Skiing in Storvik in Gastrikland, 1905. (R) Maja Beskow, courtesy of Västerbottens museum Sweden, 1905-1910.


(L) Ernest Hemingway Skiing in Gstaad, Switzerland, 1927. (R) Princess Alexandria of Greece escorted by the Marquis of Milford Haven, St. Moritz, Switzerland, 1939.


Wherever high society goes, fashion is soon to follow. The new pastime of the wealthy required an entirely unique wardrobe. Couturiers happily obliged. This period between the wars is commonly referred to as the “Golden Age of Couture” as fashion designers defined a new era of modern dress. The fashionable lady was active and sought clothes designed for comfort and elegance. Coco Chanel was famous for her dedication to sportswear, borrowing jerseys and knits from British aristocratic dress. Tennis star and muse Suzanne Lenglen inspired Jean Patou’s wildly popular sportif chic. Edigio Scaioni’s 1927 photograph of a Lucien Lelong ski suit illustrates the style of the decade– a cylindrical silhouette decorated with the gradient stripes of Art Deco, a blunt bob and the debutante slouch. A sketch by Jean Pages from 1930 includes suits by Jane Regby and Schiaparelli. The Italian designer was herself an avid sportswoman; her 1928 collection “Pour le Sport” was inspired by sportswear. A 1934 photo shows her modeling a similar ensemble alongside her daughter Gogo at society watering hole St. Moritz. In 1933, René Bouët-Willaumez captured Hermès’ ski and skating clothes for Vogue.


(L) Ski outfit by the couturier Lucien Lelong, photo by Egidio Scaioni, 1927. (R) Designer skiwear by Madeleine Vionnet, 1930s.


(L) Elsa Schiaparelli, With Her Daughter Gogo. St. Moritz, 1934. (R) Vogue, Illustrated by Jean Pages, December 22, 1930. Three models, on skis, wearing, (left to right), a Schiaparelli ski suit and matching beret, a Jane Regny ski suit, and Lucien Lelong ski suit. 


(L) Hermes, 1931. (R) Jean Patou skiwear, 1931.


Woman Skiing, 1936.


The European jet set were not the only ones to fall for the winter sport. In 1936, Sun Valley was founded, and it was not long before Hollywood came calling. Glamorous stars flocked to the charming town; Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Jimmy Stewart, Mary Pickford and Norma Shearer could all be found gamboling up and down the powdered peaks. Far from the decrees of Parisian salons, the style in these western towns was dictated by the Austrian exports that had brought the sport. Lederhosen, snowflake sweaters, and tapered tweed trousers were accented with movie star signatures: mink coats, dark shades and scarves tied over sweetly curled hair. This first wave of distinct ski style was a charming, innocent aesthetic and one that is highly coveted by vintage collectors. For example, avid collector Cathy Graham remarked on her affinity for the era in an article on vintage shopping in Vogue, January 2000, “Of course, they’re wool, and when wet get all soggy, but I love them”. Materials were still traditional and natural, heavy wool and gabardine, but technological developments from the time can be found. Waterproof tweeds and Burberry cloth were first used in raincoats and ski clothes. The Museum at FIT has a 1930’s wool ski suit that is an example of an early attempt at waterproofing. The label reads “Neva-Wet”. Zippers were the newest innovation in dress and were soon added at the lower leg and pockets. One-piece suits were ubiquitous. The palette mimicked the somber dress of the era of the Great Depression: browns, greys and dark blues as a base.

During the 1940s, two-piece suits became popular and were offered in varying tones in order to break up the monochromatic look. Jackets were designed to be reversible, which allowed for variety. Upscale sporting goods companies, such as Abercrombie & Fitch, increased their offerings of skiwear. As the political atmosphere in Europe worsened, more Europeans fled, including many devoted skiing professionals. A few of these devotees carved out careers abroad as skiing authorities, combining instructor, celebrity, and sports ambassador into one. Most interestingly, it was these personalities (as opposed to traditional designers) who would dictate the evolution of ski fashion.


(L) Sun Valley, Jan 7 1939, Norma Shearer, Mrs. Howard Hawks and Minnie Barnes with ski instructors. (R) Mrs. Gary Cooper, Jack Hemingway, Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. 1946.


(L) Sun Valley 1946. Photo by George Silk. (R) Sun Valley, Mar 23 1946. Clark Gable and Mr. and Mrs. Gary Cooper going up the slopes.


Soon after arriving in Sun Valley, Klaus Obermeyer started selling Bavarian neckties out of the bed of his truck. He tried his hand as a ski instructor in Aspen. When he began losing students to the extreme cold, he turned to his goose down comforter and invented the first quilted parka. Skiing dignitaries Ernst Engel and Howard Head would go on to design their own lines. Frederick A Pickard (“international authority on glamour in the snow”) started designing his clothes in his native Switzerland, but moved to the US after consulting on the Swiss pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. He had his own store in Sun Valley, which provided the ski clothes for the Hollywood musical Sun Valley Serenade. Additionally, he worked as a ski consultant for Bloomingdales at the opening of their Ski Shop in November of 1948. Other department stores followed suit; Abraham & Straus open their “Ski World” shop just a year later.


Klaus Obermeyer teaching skiing on Aspen Mountain just below the Sundeck restaurant, 1948.


Ski clothes by Fred Picard for Sonja Heine and John Payne in Sun Valley Serenade, 1941.


Ski clothes by Fred Picard for Sonja Heine and John Payne in Sun Valley Serenade, 1941.


The design innovation was not limited to the men. Norwegian skater, and three times Olympic gold medalist, Sonja Henie offered a line based on her own suits. Young adventurer Ann Bonfoey picked up skiing when she moved to Vermont as a newlywed. By 1939, she had secured a spot on the Women’s Olympic ski team. After WWII, she launched a skiwear line, “Ann Cooke” and ran a shop in Stowe. Friend Diana Vreeland secured coverage of the line in Harper’s Bazaar, and Lord & Taylor soon picked it up. A new marriage and move to Texas in 1946 ended her career as a fashion designer, but she remained an avid sportswoman. She continued to have her ski clothes custom made and by the 1960s, she was photographed by Toni Frissell in her signature fanny pack, internationally renowned for her glamorous style on the slopes.

As the concept of ski as fashionable dress gained traction, designers offered chic options to round out the entire experience. From the New York Times November 19, 1948, “To relax before a fire after a day’s sport, bright colored full skirts and slacks of velvet and gabardine were favorites. A fire red jersey, its basque jacket and swirling skirt quilted, won immediate approval.” The description sounds awfully similar to Claire McCardell 1940’s Après Ski design – a stunning quilted wool jersey skirt in fire engine red offset by a wide cotton midriff in black and accompanied by an matching jacket featuring an ample collar and tapered sleeves.

Watch for part 2 of this fascinating look at ski wear later this week ...


(L) Cover of Harper’s Bazaar, January, 1946. Photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Model Sabina Weber wearing an "Ann Cooke" ski ensemble. (R) Sonja Henie in ski gear (date unknown).


Ann Bonfoey Taylor, Photos by Toni Frissell, 1965.

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