The Wonderful History of Ski Fashion.

ski fashion

In the high-octane world of ski fashion, where style meets the slopes, ski outfits are more than just gear—they’re a bold statement. Today’s ski wear is a dazzling fusion of cutting-edge technology and high fashion. It’s a realm where practicality intertwines with luxury. On one hand, there’s the functional aspect: garments engineered to lock in warmth and offer fluidity in every turn and jump. On the other, there’s a touch of exclusivity, harking back to skiing’s roots as a leisure pursuit of the affluent. Picture the chic and exclusive enclaves of St. Moritz, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Davos, and Mürren—places where ski fashion evolved not just to perform but to dazzle, embodying the glitz of high society. This interplay of utility and opulence has given rise to the modern ski ensemble, a delightful mix of function and flair that continues to captivate fashion enthusiasts and ski aficionados alike.

In today’s world, ski clothing is incredibly diverse:

  • Sport-specific direction: Clothing adapted to specific types of alpine skiing, training, and competitions.
  • Mass ski leisurewear for the slopes: Aesthetic, functional, windproof, and waterproof.
  • Touring apparel, close to the outdoor segment.
  • Freeride clothing.
  • Ski wear in the style of snowboarding.
  • Fashion and luxury segments.

It all began relatively recently, just 150 years ago, with the emergence of a trend for active winter holidays in the mountains. Initially, skiing was a means of transportation in regions blanketed by snow and ice for many months. However, it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that the world, thanks to the Norwegians, started taking an interest in skiing as both a sport and a recreational activity.

All the clothing for active leisure at that time – jackets, trousers, sweaters, headwear, and gloves – was made of wool, and women’s attire often incorporated fur. There were also methods for making garments water-resistant: clothing was treated with wax or made using rubberized fabric, a technology invented by Mackintosh in the early 19th century.

1890 Norway

Women’s clothing was markedly different from men’s: despite the impracticality of skiing in skirts, there were no alternatives to this garment at the time – societal moral standards were quite rigid.

1905 Sweden

Experienced skiers back then already recognized the convenience of a layering system, which allowed them to add or remove clothing as needed, adapting what they wore to their activity level and the weather conditions. The layers consisted of light long underwear and stockings, sweaters, socks, gaiters, gloves, a waterproof coat, and breeches.

Long skirts were impractical for skiing, so by 1910, the only difference between men’s and women’s ski attire was a knee-length skirt. Jackets and shortened trousers – breeches – were increasingly made of gabardine, invented by Thomas Burberry in the late 19th century. Gabardine was the most suitable fabric for jackets and trousers as its tightly woven woolen threads and smooth surface created a barrier against wind and snow.

Unlike the previously used rubberized and waxed jackets, gabardine was also breathable. Lightweight and warm wool, which retained heat even when wet, is still a staple in skiers’ wardrobes. However, at that time, the distinction between skiers and alpine skiers was practically nonexistent.

1920 Burberry gabardine ski suit.

World War I had a profound impact on life in Europe, and ski clothing was no exception to this influence. The war-induced shift in attitudes towards clothing allowed women to dress more boldly without fear of criticism. By 1920, outfits based on tunics and breeches, similar to those worn by the British women in the Volunteer Agricultural Corps, began to appear.

Sportswear manufacturers incorporated practical elements of military uniforms into their designs, such as external buttoned pockets. During the 1920s, trousers rapidly became the accepted norm in ski villages and towns, and the ski trouser suit firmly entered the wardrobe of female skiers.

While Norwegians invented the technique of skiing, the Austrians added style to it. Matthias Zdarsky and Hannes Schneider introduced new teaching technologies, making skiing a popular sport and pastime. Consequently, the ski attire style of the 1920s was close to the aesthetic of traditional folk clothing, using a color palette of browns, greens, and reds. It was simple, practical attire that could be adorned with trimmings mimicking the geometric architecture and wildflowers of mountain meadows. On the slopes of Austria, one could encounter Lederhosen, leather pants, and even Dirndls, the national dresses.

Skiers in national Austrian attire at a themed festival

The post-war boom in ski tourism and the first Winter Olympics in 1924 spurred major manufacturers to specialize in ski and alpine ski clothing, creating waterproof yet fashionable outfits. Trousers suits in a wide range of colors were produced, where practicality was blended with elegance. New design features emerged, such as zippers replacing buttons or laces on trousers, jackets, and pockets. By the early 1930s, inspired by pilots’ uniforms, designers introduced short jackets, and full-length trousers replaced breeches and gaiters. These garments were relatively loose-fitting, providing greater freedom of movement while also maintaining a casual style.

Wool ski suits from the 1937/1938 Montgomery Wards collection

In the 1930s, ski wear continued to be fashionable while becoming increasingly functional. This period also saw the influence of mechanized leisure in the form of ski lifts, which began appearing on the slopes of France and Switzerland in 1933-1934, impacting the design and construction of ski clothing.

It can be said that the widespread adoption of ski lifts led to the distinction between skiers and alpine skiers. The transition from mountain skiing, essentially a lighter version of ski touring, to alpine skiing required a different clothing design. Designers experimented with various silhouettes—tighter or looser fits, and with the advent of elastic yarn in the mid-1930s, elastic cuffs appeared on sleeves and at the bottom of trousers.

Fashion gradually shifted from baggy styles to more form-fitting trousers, better suited to the new skiing techniques. This period also marked another significant development: ski enthusiasts began embracing two-piece outfits consisting of trousers and jackets in different colors, a trend that continues on the slopes today. The materials remained the same: ski suits of that era were made from wool or gabardine with cotton flannel lining.

1936 Eddie Bauer’s Skyliner down insulated ski jacket

In 1936, American Eddie Bauer invented the first quilted jacket filled with goose down, commonly known as a down jacket. Bauer himself claimed that this idea was inspired by his uncle, who was born in Siberia. While this innovation could have reduced the dominance of warm wool in ski apparel, the time for the widespread adoption of down jackets had not yet arrived.

An intriguing development in the late 1930s was the resurgence of the ski skirt. This garment became a kind of badge of expertise, at least in some resorts, where it was seen as a symbol of a skilled and experienced skier.

Photo from Vogue magazine, December 1938 issue © Roger Schall, Vogue

Between the First and Second World Wars, fashion designers vigorously explored a variety of fashion trends, a period often referred to as the “Golden Age of Fashion.” The array of silhouettes was so vast and diverse that it’s nearly impossible to list them all. It was during this time that ski fashion welcomed jumpsuits and sweaters adorned with snowflakes, tapered trousers, scarves, and in the luxury segment, even mink coats.

However, breakthroughs in materials and functional features, similar to elastic cuffs or zippers, were few. For instance, nylon was invented in 1935, but it only made its way into ski clothing after the end of World War II.

As the political atmosphere in Europe deteriorated towards the end of the 1930s, a large number of Europeans, including professional alpine skiers, fled to the United States. Among them were many who later became famous, such as Klaus Obermeyer, who is still active in Aspen today. Some of these individuals made a career overseas as ski sport specialists. Interestingly, it was these alpine skiers, rather than traditional designers, who dictated the evolution of ski fashion in the U.S.

In the early 1940s, ski clothing became more form-fitting, partly due to fabric shortages during the war. This trend continued into the late 1940s, when ski trousers, still made from woolen gabardine, became much slimmer. Additionally, some trouser designs introduced a new feature—zippers on the calves, making it possible to maintain a snug fit while also being easy to put on. The colors from the late 1930s to the late 1940s were generally quite somber: browns, grays, and dark blues, but with bright yellow, orange, and red details and trims.

After the war, the popularity of alpine skiing surged anew. With the concept of fashionable ski wear gaining traction, designers began offering luxurious options. As reported by The New York Times on November 19, 1948: “Brightly colored skirts, as well as trousers made of velvet and gabardine, are designed for relaxing by the fire after a day on the slopes. A fiery red sweater, Basque jacket, and quilted skirt quickly became popular.”

In 1949, a pivotal event occurred that had a significant impact: future U.S. ski wear mogul Klaus Obermeyer introduced a quilted down jacket, which he ingeniously crafted from his own blanket. Driven by the intense cold he experienced while teaching skiing, and losing students due to the chill, Obermeyer innovated. Eddie Bauer’s down jacket, conceived over 20 years earlier, finally began its foray into ski clothing. Thick wool and gabardine were no longer the primary materials for ski wear, as the outer layer could now be made of lightweight, quick-drying nylon.

Color also started playing a more vital role during these years: the war was over, and it was time to rejoice in life again. It was in 1949 that the renowned designer Emilio Pucci began his long and distinguished career, creating vibrant ski ensembles.

Emilio Pucci ski suit . Vogue magazine, 1959
Emilio Pucci suit in 1969

Another significant milestone occurred in 1951 when the Munich-based ski wear manufacturer Bogner introduced stretch ski pants with stirrups, invented by Maria Bogner. These pants, made of a stretch fabric blend of wool and nylon, clung to the legs without riding up. Popular well into the 1980s, these pants greatly enhanced the sexual appeal of alpine skiing.

Bogner clothing is still a symbol of fashion and luxury in the ski environment today

The elastic nylon trousers perfectly matched the streamlined style of the 1950s ski wear, accentuating the hips and slim waist. They could be paired with colorful mohair sweaters for skiing or worn casually at home, earning their own nickname as “Bogners.” Specialists and a new generation of clothing designers utilized these trousers to create sets of fashionable yet functional attire. Similar models periodically resurface in collections of leading ski wear manufacturers, who are trendsetters in the industry, demonstrating the enduring influence of this classic design.

The 1950s were a decade of prosperity and growth. As more people gained the ability to travel, the popularity of alpine skiing surged. The lull in the ski industry caused by World War II ended in the 1950s with a new skiing boom, far more significant than in the 1930s. New developments, especially in textile technologies, emerged in the major markets of Europe and North America. Synthetics proved to be warmer and more water-resistant than natural fibers, placing ski wear at the forefront of material innovation.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, ski wear manufacturers experimented with new, lighter fabrics that were also warm. Ski clothing became lighter and more form-fitting, while still remaining vibrant and colorful. This era marked a significant evolution in ski wear, combining functionality with fashion in a way that had not been seen before.

The 1960s witnessed a true revolution in ski equipment. Double-layered, anti-fog ski goggles, automatic bindings that reduced the number of severe injuries, rigid plastic boots with clips, and lightweight yet powerful fiberglass skis were introduced and quickly gained popularity. This era also saw the widespread use of snow grooming machines, which made the slopes smoother and more uniform.

As skiing speeds increased, these advancements placed new demands on ski wear. Clothing needed to be more aerodynamic, durable, and capable of withstanding the elements while maintaining comfort and safety for the skier at higher velocities. This period marked a significant leap in the evolution of ski apparel, aligning with the technological advancements in equipment.

In the same period, 1959 marked another revolution in ski wear with the introduction of spandex. This elastic fiber was combined with other synthetic fibers or wool to provide greater stretchability than nylon, with the added benefit of instantly returning to its original shape. Ski wear could now stretch to fit the body and its movements while maintaining its form. Spandex was particularly well-suited for competition clothing, offering greater freedom of movement and excellent aerodynamic properties.

Inspired by vibrant events like the Olympic Games, designers in the 1960s introduced slim, elastic ski trousers in their collections. Alongside these were more relaxed versions for leisurely skiing, which, when paired with turtlenecks, were also popular for après-ski and other outdoor activities. This era saw a blending of functionality, comfort, and style, reflecting the dynamic spirit of the times in ski fashion.

Bogner suits. Style in 1960s skiwear

The 1960s ushered in the second wave of ski style, marked by real innovations in design and… high society glamour. A new generation of fashion designers contributed to the creation of a magical aura and a life of beauty on the ski slopes. By the end of the 1960s, high fashion had reached the ski slopes, with expensive, luxurious fabrics and form-fitting silhouettes. The slim, elegant, and debonair French sportsman Jean-Claude Killy epitomized a James Bond figure on skis. Speaking of James Bond, the creators of several films contributed to the promotion of the “glamorous life at a ski resort.” Stunning, luxurious images of stars like Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, and Ann Taylor graced the covers of winter editions of fashion magazines. It was this fashion that immortalized the 1960s era.

Audrey Hepburn, 1963

In the 1970s, an increasing number of companies began producing specialized ski wear catering to every taste, budget, and skill level. Wool was used less frequently in ski clothing as synthetics dominated the scene. During this period, ski wear increasingly penetrated the casual wear segment: quilted nylon insulated jackets with detachable sleeves, which could be transformed into warm vests, became fashionable.

Flared trousers created a relaxed vibe, while quilted down jackets (including those with synthetic fillers) became a versatile addition to the ski wardrobe. Insulated suits worn by athletes before and after races also found their place in the wardrobes of ski enthusiasts.

Women’s jackets featured artificial fur, vinyl, and metallic fabrics, while fashionable moon boots, “space-age” caps, and ski suits in psychedelic color combinations created a festive and slightly wild mood both on the slopes and in après-ski bars. This era in ski fashion was marked by a bold, adventurous spirit, embracing fun and flamboyance in equal measure.

Ski suits from the 1970s

In the second half of the 1970s, an event occurred that marked a turning point not only in ski wear but also in all outdoor apparel: the release of the first clothing collections made from the new material Gore-Tex in 1976. However, this groundbreaking membrane material began to be widely used in clothing much later. Its introduction represented a significant innovation, offering unparalleled waterproof and breathable qualities, which dramatically improved the performance and comfort of outdoor and ski clothing.

The development of fleece production in the late 1970s also changed the approach to ski and outdoor clothing. Made from lightweight, warm, and quick-drying polyester fibers, fleece transformed the mid-layer of clothing into something light, comfortable, practical, and warm. It rapidly became a crucial material for both sportswear and everyday wear, significantly challenging the dominance of wool.

By the end of the decade, other practical ski clothing items increasingly infiltrated the everyday wear segment. Recall the nylon, wool, and cotton turtlenecks – a distinctive feature of the 1970s. These developments reflect how innovations in materials and design in ski and outdoor clothing began to influence broader fashion trends, merging functionality with everyday style.

Brightly colored clothes from the 1970s

By the early 1980s, virtually all of the latest technologies that continue to be used today had been incorporated into ski wear. This led to fierce competition among leading brands to create new materials or designs. Throughout the 1980s, branding with logos became increasingly prevalent, and the variety of clothing choices expanded enormously.

Designs incorporated everything that had been conceived up to that time: fluorescent colors, soft pastel shades, bright abstract patterns, and animal prints. This era was characterized by a bold and experimental approach to fashion, reflecting a broader cultural trend towards more expressive and individualistic styles. Ski wear during this period not only focused on functionality but also became a statement of personal style and identity, making a mark both on and off the slopes.

100 Years of Ski Fashion

During the 1980s, jackets and trousers were often designed to zip together at the waist for greater versatility, and high-bib pants became a familiar component of the separate jacket and trousers combo. The variety of shapes, colors, and silhouettes was astounding: elegant stirrup trousers, leggings, and neon colors intermingled with leopard prints, while moon boots coexisted with fur-trimmed boots. This era also saw the unique “ski bum” style, immortalized in cult movies like “Hot Dog” and “Ski Patrol.” This style represented a more relaxed, carefree approach to ski fashion, contrasting with the more polished and high-tech looks that were also popular. The 1980s in ski wear reflected a blend of high fashion, practicality, and a touch of rebelliousness, creating a dynamic and diverse fashion landscape on the slopes.

French junior freestyle skiing team, 1986

In the 1990s, ski wear became more comfortable, but there were no groundbreaking changes in design or technology. The ski suits seen in films like “Dumb and Dumber” and “Ski School” closely resembled their 1980s counterparts, with the main differences being in the materials used and somewhat less vibrant colors. Moving away from the bright colors of the 1980s also led to a rise in popularity of ski wear from outdoor brands like Patagonia or The North Face. Luxury brands, naturally, continued to release their lines of active sportswear. However, there were no breakthroughs akin to the introduction of nylon in the 1930s, “Bogners” in the 1950s, or Gore-Tex in the 1970s.

In the early 21st century, the ski fashion scene, influenced by snowboarders, embraced baggy silhouettes, as if wearing oversized clothing. Color schemes became a bit more subdued compared to the 1990s, but there was an increase in versatile colors like black and white. To the traditional fur trimmings were added materials with metallic and mirror effects, accompanied by mirrored sunglasses. This period marked a blending of ski and snowboard cultures, leading to a more relaxed and diverse style on the slopes.

Baggy clothing is still popular in certain skier circles today

In the new millennium, the rapidly evolving snowboarding industry and the growing popularity of extreme winter sports have prompted sportswear manufacturers to focus heavily on innovation. Fabrics and membranes with continually improving characteristics, Soft Shell materials, waterproof zippers, jackets with inflatable insulating air pockets, waterproof seams, seamless underwear and socks, systems for electric heating, increased use of helmets (leading to changes in hood designs), incorporation of back, coccyx, and lumbar protection in ski wear, protective elastomer panels on the hips, reinforced lumbar support belts in trousers, snow skirts, and double cuffs represent some of these advancements.

These innovations have not only improved the functionality and safety of ski wear but have also influenced the aesthetics, making modern ski attire a blend of high performance, safety, and style. This era has seen a significant leap in the technological aspect of ski wear, making it more sophisticated and adaptable to the diverse needs and demands of winter sports enthusiasts.

Competition has driven manufacturers towards diversification, with special emphasis on the “look” of clothing for different skiing styles. Today’s ski fashion is a mix of various styles, with the boundaries between sportswear and casual, or weekend wear, becoming increasingly blurred thanks to modern technologies. There’s practically a guarantee that on the slopes or nearby, in ski towns, one can wear an endless variety of clothing, and almost nothing will seem out of place. Only sportswear with “three stripes” or jeans tucked into ski boots might raise eyebrows.

Where is ski wear today? It’s somewhere between the past and the future. There are denim-like fabrics and natural or indistinguishable-from-natural fur, 4D-stretch materials with powerful membranes, and even “vintage” wool fabrics, leather, and specially treated down. Comfortable, warm, and highly functional outdoor-style layers, helmets with military-helmet designs, and next to them, cream-colored suits with exquisite trim and leather helmets with mirrored visors, as stunning as they are impractical. Sleek, elegant lines of designer sets on the slopes of elite resorts and baggy silhouettes in parks… Ski wear poses unique challenges to designers, expanding the potential of clothing while simultaneously stimulating interest in past styles and future functionality.

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