BEIJING, China — She wore the pants. And on this day, she was the only one.
In a dramatic black one-piece that felt like classic Audrey Hepburn — white accents and rhinestones, high bun, smoky eyes — Swedish figure skater Josefina Taljegård stood out Tuesday as the only athlete in a field of 30 who wore pants for the short program on the first day of the Beijing Olympics’ marquee women’s figure skating competition.
“I chose it because it fits the music, and also because I feel very strong and confident in this kind of clothes,” Taljegård said.
Though women in the singles and pairs contests have for years been free to don trousers in their performances, few actually opt for pants at the most high-stakes competitions such as the Olympics.
Here, the ballerina aesthetic of flowy skirts, pastel colors, sparkles and glitter continues to dominate alongside the classical music that is synonymous with the traditional look and feel of women’s figure skating.
“Even a rule change may not necessarily change the cultural expectations if it’s a central part of the scoring,” said Cheryl Cooky, an author and Purdue University professor who studies gender and sports. “People here – specifically judges – know what they find aesthetically pleasing is kind of wrapped up in a feminine image.”
While there’s been a step toward edgier and more offbeat music at the Capital Indoor Stadium during these Olympics, the artistic choices in the women’s competition have so far proved less progressive in both music and costume.
That stands in contrast to the women in ice dance — one of four figure skating disciplines at the Beijing Games — where there was a critical mass of women wearing pants after a change in performance rules. On the first day of that competition last week, six out of 23 women – more than a quarter of them — wore pants for their rhythm dances.
They all returned to more standard dresses two days later, for the free dance that determined the medals.
Russian ice dancer Victoria Sinitsina wore an all-black outfit featuring a sparkly, one-shouldered, midriff-baring top with hip-hugging trousered bottoms that gave '90s New York supermodel vibes. And it fit with the performance that she did with partner Nikita Katsalapov to “Brick House” by American funk and soul band The Commodores.
“It brings something different because usually girls wear dresses, skirts,” Katsalapov said. “The music for this year’s rhythm dance, it let us do costumes like that, with pants for the ladies. And it looks sexy and beautiful, too.”
In addition to comfort, practicality and a chic look, skaters in pants said they saw it as a way to match their male partners, as well as align with the music for this season. The International Skating Union chose “Street Dance Rhythms,” with style options including hip hop, disco, swing, krump, popping, funk, jazz, reggae, reggaeton and blues.
Canadian ice dancer Piper Gilles wore a orangesicle-colored, carnivalesque, Elton John-inspired one-piece for the ice dance competition, though she previously wore a skirt version of it for the medley team event the first week of the Games.
“I was actually kind of nervous about wearing pants this year. That was something that I’d never done before,” Gilles said. “We’ve always been told to wear skirts so it’s kind of fun to be able to break out of that.”
While few figure skaters wear pants in competition, nearly all do so during practice sessions.
“You don’t have the weight of the skirt, like when you turn and stuff, and it feels more like practice because in practice, I just wear pants. So I find it, I think, (it is) more comfortable,” said Marjorie Lajoie, a Canadian ice dancer who wore a black unitard accented by a teal-colored, sash-like ruffle in a nod to Hollywood red carpet glamour in her “Funkytown” rhythm dance performance. “You shouldn’t be forced to wear a skirt.”
Cooky said there are parallels between figure skating, golf and tennis — all sports where women are traditionally seen competing in skirts, skorts or dresses. The outfits in the women’s competitions become culturally-enforced gender markers because the sports themselves are identically performed by their male counterparts.
“There is still sort of cultural anxiety around women’s athleticism and women’s physicality despite the tremendous progress we’ve made in that space,” Cooky said. “Sports today is kind of the last cultural site where that (gender) difference is both accepted and celebrated.”
The parameters among those sports diverge, however, when considering the subjectivity of figure skating. Half of the scoring is based on how judges view their performance — the music, the costume, the flow and the overall feel.
That may be why there’s no push toward uniform equality in figure skating as there was last year for the Norwegian female beach handball team. Those women refused to wear the required bikini bottoms at the European Beach Handball Championships in Bulgaria and instead defied the rules by — and were punished for — wearing shorts like the male players.
Back at the women’s singles competition Tuesday night, Taljegård said she’s not morally opposed to pants and incorporates all costume styles into her other performances. A skirt that can ripple through the air can provide a striking element in figure skating that pants just can’t quite match.
Still, the 26-year-old from Sweden hasn’t worn a skirt to practice since she was 12 years old.
“It’s because it’s more comfortable. Sometimes if you want to go to the restroom, it’s easier,” Taljegård said. “Where I skate in Sweden, we have a lot of cold rinks. If I skate with just a skirt and stockings or tights you have underneath the skirt, it’s usually pretty thin. So for me, it’s definitely nicer to have pants.”
And while her Olympic showcase featured lightning fast spins and music from The Fugees, Taljegård didn't advance to the free skate Thursday night. But there's no doubt that she remains confident as ever in the skin — and pants — she's in.
“I’m a mature woman," Taljegård said. "And I think I look great.”