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The Fashion of Downhill

February 19, 2014

As the downhill events come to a close at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, we thought we would take a look back at the history of skiing and the fashion behind the sport. Although all of the Olympians will be wearing tight-fitting race suits, we want to focus on what us mere mortals wear when enjoying time in the mountains. 

Though skiing can be traced back to as early as 3000 B.C., it was not until the invention of the toe-and-heel binding in 1850 that alpine skiing took hold and skiing switched from being solely a means of transportation, to a means of recreation. With the new secure binding, skiers could now graduate from Nordic flats and take on the steep terrain of the Alps. Throughout the 1920s, Europeans (especially wealthy Brits), enjoyed winters in Alpine villages racing on skis, yet when the first Winter Olympics were held in 1924 in Chamonix, France, no downhill events were included. In fact, downhill skiing was not included in the Olympics until the 1936 Winter Games in Garmisch, Germany. 

In the early years, skiing was a sport for the privileged few, but after the World War II and over the next 30 years, developments in technology (including the construction of purpose built ski lifts), equipment, and clothing made skiing more accessible, and popular. With the increased popularity, the ski fashion industry took hold.


Ski fashion from the 1920's and 30's included wool jumpers, trousers and woolen skirts. Image (L) courtesy of The Vail Daily.
Image (R) by Richard Schall, Vogue, December 1938 courtesy of Shrimpton Couture.

During the early years of recreational skiing, female skiers often wore woolen skirts, while men favoured a thick woollen jumper with trousers tucked into their boots. Of course, these outfits were not waterproof and quite bulky.

Fast forward to the late 1940s, and we see functionality take hold in the form of lighter, slimmer, and most importantly, waterproof wool gabardine ski suits of natural brown, grey and dark blue tones.

Skiwear in the 1970s was defined by the cross between street wear and skiwear. Image by Conde Nast
courtesy of

Throughout the 1950s and into the 1970s, lighter synthetic fabrics that were more fitted to the body defined ski clothing. It was during this time that skiwear and street wear crossed over with nylon ski jackets that could be converted into daily fashion items.


"Onesies" and neon ski-suits packed the slopes in the 1980's and 90's. Image (L) courtesy of Classic Kicks.
Image (R) courtesy of Skinet.

As we entered into the last quarter of the century, shoulder pads, bright colours, and the ski one-piece, or “onesies" arrived on the mountains. The insulation and warmth of the new “onesies" allowed for longer days on the mountain, and with the creation of the higher-speed chair-lift, lots of daily runs. Although perhaps functional, we all broadly agree that the “onesie” was perhaps the low point of ski fashion, and a source of embarrassment when going through old photo albums!

In the 90’s, while the onesies still reigned supreme, it was the neon colours, heavily pocketed jackets, and stark white ski boots that defined the decade. As long as you had some purple streaks on your jacket and more pockets than the person next to you in line, you were dressed for the occasion.

The last decade has seen the emergence of lightweight Gore-Tex jackets on the slopes. Image (L) courtesy of Mountain Khakis.
Image (R) courtesy of Steiner's Sports.

Recently, while over-sized jackets, reflective googles, and bandanas rule in the park, technology and layering is king on most parts of the mountain. Gore-Tex, and other forms of light, breathable and waterproof jackets have become common. The light jacket is combined with layering of natural or synthetics bases (and hopefully a Khunu jumper) to keep you warm for those long days in the mountains, regardless of whether you spend your days on or off the piste. 

As ski fashion evolves we will remain huge advocates of natural fabrics (particularly for base and mid-layer garments) as well as understated style and functionality…..unless of course you’re a wanna be racer and absolutely must wear that aerodynamic suit. Just remember to change before you join everyone for après ski drinks.


If you are interested in learning more about how technology plays a role in the gear worn by modern Olympic athletes, check out this video courtesy of the National Science Foundation.



To read more information on fashion in the ski industry, or to see where we gathered some of our information, you can read some of the following blogs and stories:

Excerpt image courtesy of More History of the Peter Borough Ski Club