Friday, February 27, 2009

When skiing became sexy


John Fry is the author of "The Story of Modern Skiing," about the changes that revolutionized the sport after World War II.

On the list of the dynamic forces that propelled skiing to its most explosive period of growth before 1970—the chairlift, snowmaking, plastic boots, and fiberglass skis—sexiness is seldom mentioned. But the fact is that the sport soared in popularity after 1947 when skiers replaced baggy pants and jackets with form-fitting skiwear. And it really took off in 1952 when Germany's Maria Bogner created the alluring, tight-fitting stretch pant. The sharp outline of a skier's hips, thighs and buns were now etched against the snow and winter skyline.

Public demand for stretch pants almost overwhelmed the Bogner family's small factory on the edge of Munich. Within three years, it was turning out thousands of pairs in shocking new colors never previously worn by skiers—colors such as mauve, tomato-red and chartreuse. The pants sold for an unheard-of $40 ($325 today) and more. Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman, the Shah of Iran and Stein Eriksen wore them. Henry Ford II ordered 15 pairs.

Stretchies made the sport sexy, but not prurient.

"We weren't trying to treat women, or men, as sex objects," says the wife of filmmaker Warren Miller, Laurie Miller, who was a ski retailer at the time. "Clothes are as much a part of skiing as blue sky, powder snow and the lift lines to stand in so you can get acquainted with someone who looks attractive."


Nonetheless, it was a time when instructors—bronzed and handsome, often with an exotic foreign accent—typically treated the female pupil as athletically challenged. When she decided to make herself suitably submissive, she also became a desirable object of flirtation. The incidence of women marrying their ski instructors is unknown, but it possibly matched that of women uniting with members of their high school graduating class.

The supreme conflation of snow bunny and sex bunny may have occurred when the Playboy Club in the late 1960s opened resort hotels next to ski slopes in Wisconsin and New Jersey.

What makes it all seem so odd now is that U.S. and Canadian women outpaced men in the tough, hazardous sport of ski racing. Fiercely competitive, they won 75 percent of all the Olympic and World Championship medals awarded to North American skiers in alpine racing, twice as many as men did. Yet magazines were more likely to celebrate a female's success not by a picture in the gates, but by stretching her across a color foldout.

The contour-hugging look lasted for about 20 years. Then the beautiful girls in Bogners and tall fur hats all but vanished, replaced by skiers wearing today's less sleek but far warmer and more functional skiwear.

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