The sleek, modern skiwear look, wildly popular in the 1950s and 1960s, is mistakenly thought to have originated with stretch pants. The fact is that in 1948, just after World War II ended and more than five years before Maria Bogner introduced her famously sexy stretchies, skiers were already outfitting themselves in body-hugging fashions.
Before the war, North American skiers wore clumsy, dowdy clothing, often consisting of wool sweaters, cloth jackets and baggy trousers with socks pulled up over the cuffs. The pants flapped loudly as you sped downhill. Worse, the fabric didn’t shed snow well, and when the snow melted, moisture soaked through to the skin, transforming the erstwhile enthusiast into a human icicle.
But after the war, skiwear makers turned to new lightweight, water- and wind-resistant weaves and fabrics that repelled water and snow, keeping the skier drier and warmer. Discomfort declined, and chic arrived. Tightly woven gabardine—a blend of cotton and wool—made a tapered ski trouser possible. By the winter of 1947–48, a fresh and streamlined look showed up on the slopes.
Traditionalists sneered at the new “glamour pants.” Their disdain lasted about as long as it took racers to slip into the aerodynamically superior skiwear, which cut seconds off their times. And now, with socks tucked out of sight, fashion-conscious women donned “Irvings.” The pants were made by the brilliant young Montreal designer Irving Margolese, who was hailed by Time magazine in 1948 for having parlayed a three-man tailor shop into a booming business. Saks Fifth Avenue sold Irving pants, along with sleek skiwear by Harold Hirsch’s White Stag and New York’s Jules Andre. Bloomingdale’s offered svelte velveteen trousers for “after-skiing.”
The fashion change prompted Aspen instructor Fred Iselin to quip in his signature Swiss accent that “when I was young, my face was schmooth and my pants were baggy. Now that I’m old, my face is baggy, but my pants are schmooth.” Anyone wanting to adopt the new look faced a bill of $300 for an outfit (more than $2,000 in today’s dollars). One skier warned a Time reporter that the cost would “take skiing away from the masses.”
Smooth gave way to stretchy in the 1950s and ’60s, followed in the 1970s by warmer, more functional skiwear—no longer streamlined and increasingly bulky. Finally, teenage snowboarders popularized today’s baggy look, returning slope fashion back to what their grandparents once wore.
John Fry is the author of The Story of Modern Skiing, about the changes that transformed the sport after World War II.
- SKI MAGAZINE, MARCH/APRIL 2009