Inside the Niche, Glittery World of Figure Skating Dressmaking

I Tonya
Photo: Neon

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I went ice skating for the first time—well, for our first time together. I was a competitive figure skater for nearly 16 years before attending college. And no matter how small my New York shoebox apartment closets have gotten, I’ve kept my battle-worn skates with me ever since.

Taking someone skating, for me, is like sharing an intimate, nostalgic part of myself with them. Straight Anastasia vibes. However embarrassing it is when mom makes everyone rewatch an old skating DVD of mine around the holidays (sigh), people understand me better after seeing me on the ice.

I think most child athletes would agree that playing a sport when you’re young has a lasting impact. But figure skating often consumes its athletes so much that leaving it behind is not an option. Many former competitive skaters become coaches, judges, or professional performers in traveling shows like Champions on Ice. That's what Nancy Kerrigan—the former Olympian who caught the brunt of figure skating's infamous Tonya Harding scandal, now immortalized by Margot Robbie’s I, Tonya—did.

The "incident" as it's referred to in the movie (and was throughout my skating career) was a major crack in the sport's "ladylike" veneer. And with the film hitting theaters this weekend, we finally get a glimpse of an ice rink that's more realistic and relatable (bye, Ice Princess). The movie got it right, from the overarching icy politics down to the station wagon Harding's coach drove. I, Tonya touched on what skaters experience, mentally, behind the glittering costumes. Harding's tale is far from universal, but the competitiveness is damn close. I cried several times during Robbie's performance, not because her acting was moving—which is was—but because she perfectly captured the anxiety, anticipation, fear, and excitement I felt during big competitions, which rushed back like a tidal wave. She understood those moments when I, too, wanted to skate over to the judges and chew them out for my scores (but I never did).

Shalayne Pulia in Red Skating Dress
The writer at about age 5, wearing a red custom skating dress. 

Skating is a reputation sport that requires participants to bend to the mold of America's (and the U.S. Figure Skating Association's) Sweetheart. But as much as the old-school, over-the-top, sequinned costumes highlighted that, they are also, in part, the reward for all the hard work we put in. The adornment that allowed us to feel like the stars we strived to be on the ice. Which makes it all (or at least some of it) worth it.

Figure Skating Costumes
David Madison/Getty Images

When I think about how much I loved skating as a child, I also think about my parents, who woke up at 4 a.m. to cart me to the rink, the coaches and choreographers who worked on my routines with me, and the dressmakers who were like family. They are part of the support team that helps make ice skating a magical spectator sport. (Tell me you don't watch the winter Olympics mainly for all that on-ice sparkle.) I remember going to see my dressmaker with my coach—a talented self-taught designer in her own right—to talk about my latest program and the custom costume I wanted. Each new program meant having a new custom costume designed based on the music's theme and your skating style (always requested on a time crunch, much to my dressmaker's dismay).

That’s where I fell for fashion and design. I loved choosing fabrics, watching my dressmaker superglue each and every crystal on with a toothpick, and finally prancing around in the finished product. But don’t be fooled: A skating dress is a suit of armor. As dainty and frilly as it may seem, stepping out on a clean sheet of ice in a dress designed to fit your music, your style, and your body perfectly will majorly boost your confidence. And in a sport in which first and fifth place are only tenths of a point apart, every little bit of edge counts.

Shalayne Pulia Spinning in
The writer at age 16 spinning in a King Kong-inspired custom skating dress. 

I often equate creating the perfect skating costume to finding your wedding dress. The dress. The one you want to share one of the most magical moments of your life in. That moment of breathless elation is what it feels like to slip on your competitive dress for the first time. You may not be wearing it for one night only, but every time you step out on a competitive ice surface, you’re being watched, literally judged, and every movement has the potential to make or break your shot at success. Sometimes judges are harsh, like they were for Harding, who sewed her own dresses because she didn't have the thousands of dollars needed to make a custom design. One of the most impactful lines from I, Tonya came from actress Julianne Nicholson, who played Harding's Coach Diane Rawlinson. She said, "If you dressed appropriately, maybe they'd judge you apropriately." Perhaps that will give you an idea of how important the "presentation" marks were, and still are, in skating.

Jan Longmire, one of the most renowned figure skating dressmakers in the business, who's outfitted competitors like Sasha Cohen and Ashley Wagner, took me inside the unique world of figure skating costuming, from beading techniques used on the sparkliest athlete uniforms to why the ice's signature style has remained largely unchanged for decades.

WATCH: TheI, Tonya Trailer

How did you get into dressmaking?
I got started in 1984. I was living in Malibu, making costumes for musical theater. I went into Santa Monica to learn how to skate myself. I mentioned to my coach that I had done costumes for the stage, and she asked if I’d ever done anything for figure skaters. I hadn’t, but I wanted to learn. My coach asked if I would be interested in making a costume for this senior-level guy going to nationals. I took one look at this guy and I said, “Oh yeah!” He was a gorgeous dude.

Who taught you how to make the dresses?
The skater going to nationals showed me. He took me to downtown LA and showed me where to get the fabric, where he got it custom-dyed, and where he got the beads. At the time, crystals were not the glue-ons like we all love now. They had a hole in the middle and you had to sew on each one. Back then, sewing on one bead at a time was the only way you could have something glitter. In the beginning, I screwed up big time. I had no idea what the rules were, but I was fascinated by it. I had five children so I would work on it at midnight, 3 in the morning, whenever my kids weren’t awake, and I just never let go of it.

What frustrates you most?
No one is going to say, “Alright, we’re beading [instead of using glue-on crystals],” unless you’re Sasha [Cohen]. She would literally rip off a stone, and I would come close to hitting her. She’d say, "No I want a couple beads right there." And, I would say, “No one is going to see it!“ But, she made a good point, which is it’s all about what the skater sees anyway.

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How do you see skating dresses as fashion armor?
That’s the magic word! In the last Olympics, one of the skaters I was working with, Ashley [Wagner], had all that [Tonya Harding-level controversy] over her getting a spot on the Olympic team even though she didn’t earn it at Nationals. Everyone wanted to kill her. So, I said, “I’m going to make you another yellow dress, not the one you wore at Nationals. I’m going to make you a whole new one and we’re going to upgrade it, and I’m going to call it your ‘suit of armor.’ ” Costuming is a suit of armor, it protects you, makes you feel strong, it says everything that you’re trying to say [in your program], but you’re too worried about landing and not looking like an idiot. It helps you to keep it together—if you just wore sweatpants, they wouldn’t do that.

How small is the professional figure skating dressmaking community?
There are so few people that have gotten to a level of, "I’m going to make you look wonderful and maybe you’ll even win something, and you’re going to pay me." And we’re all different. Many of us are Facebook friends with each other.

Shalayne Pulia in Yellow
The writer at age 13 wearing a Beauty and the Beast-inspired custom costume. 

Why do you think so few costumers get into it?
Because first of all, it’s not exactly lucrative for the amount of time it takes. Also it is difficult to do something professionally that you had to teach to yourself. You can’t go to FIDM and learn about this. Sure, you can learn how to draw a sketch or sew, but it’s not the sewing that everybody gets wrong. The appliques, beading, ruching, the whole thing is all done piece by piece, taken apart, put back together, taken apart again. The only people left standing are mostly us old guys.

Where do the ideas for the designs come from?
I start with the skater and ask, "What is the story for this program that you want to tell?" I’ve [costumed for] Swan Lake I don’t know how many times, but I’ve never done the same dress twice because I haven’t had the same story from a skater.

What comes next?
I do research on the person who wrote the music because that person had some story to tell, too. I get really into the narrative of all of this. Then I sketch and send [the drawings] out [to the skater]. Once approved, it’s up to me to dye the fabric. I do it all in pieces. I don’t give a fitting until I have most of the decoration done. And then I take the whole thing apart, edit, and sew together. Then the second fitting is on the ice because actually moving is going to change everything. Sometimes I get it back for a second adjustment, but mostly that’s about it. Unless I see it and want to bling it out more.

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What's the most over-used music in figure skating?
Please no more Carmen, ever again.

What’s kept you in this niche business for so long?
I [costume for] rhythmic gymnastics, I [costume for] ballet, I make tutus, and I love all of that, but skating is just weird enough to be more interesting to me. I think when you’re a little kid and you skate, there’s nothing that’s ever going to feel like that. You can go on the greatest ride at Six Flags and you’re not going to feel the same way as you do on the ice. And I feel that vicariously when I do what I do.

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