By GUY TREBAY
NOW that the N.B.A. has pressured basketball players to start dressing like Mr. Rogers, and George Steinbrenner has gotten Johnny Damon to trade in the mullet for a hairdo that makes him look like a stylist from "Blow Out," the question arises of how it is that some sports consistently elude the long arm of the style police.
Figure skating, in particular, remains a mystifying holdout of supremely bad taste in sports, with athletes competing in presentations that favor bugle beads, tassels, fringe, hair extensions (that's the men) and costumes that often seem designed to invoke a Moscow Circus send-up of "Showgirls."
If past Olympics are any indication, the next Winter Games, which begin Feb. 10 in Turin, can be counted on to influence the style world, which often takes cues from the stuff athletes wear. In recent seasons designers as dissimilar as Francisco Costa (for Calvin Klein), Narciso Rodriguez, Ralph Lauren, Nicolas Ghesquiere (for Balenciaga) and Miuccia Prada have found inspiration in the high-tech materials, aerodynamic silhouettes and performance-based designs essential to uniforms used in sports like alpine skiing, speed skating and luge.
Just seven years after being recognized as a Olympic sport, snowboarding attracts 5.9 million participants in the United States alone and has spun off an apparel industry that last year brought in more than $100 million in sales.
Figure skating consistently posts among the highest television ratings of winter sports: 30 million American households tuned in to NBC's coverage of Sarah Hughes's gold-medal-winning performance at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City; coverage of the 1994 Olympics figure skating finals in Lillehammer, Norway, drew more viewers than any sporting event in television history except the Super Bowls of 1982 and 1983. Both NBC and Bravo have skating specials lined up to fill the weeks until the torch is lighted in Turin. And those shows can be counted on to demonstrate the weird truth that, seemingly alone among winter sports, skating seems trapped in the style permafrost of the 1950's, a sartorial dead end that, unlike snowboarding, has virtually no civilian fashion impact and even less cool.
"It's still all nude pumps and suntan pantyhose," the designer Cynthia Rowley said.
And it is. It is also boot covers the color of support stockings. It is Ice Princess flounces. It is movie theater ruches. It is spangled dirndls and black mesh bondage outfits or spider web appliqués. It is Sherwood Forest tunics with petal hemlines and draped cowls that look as if designed for a hooker who once dreamed she was Maid Marian. It is as cheesy and Lawrence Welk dated as the rumba costumes favored by contestants on shows like "Dancing With the Stars."
"Nancy Kerrigan was as close as we've come to real style on the ice," Ms. Rowley said, referring to the glacial brunette who remains more famous as the punch line of an ice rink melodrama (Ms. Kerrigan was kneecapped by her rival, Tonya Harding, and then lost the 1994 gold medal in an upset to the Ukrainian poppet Oksana Baiul) than for her skating or presence or style.
Almost as shocking as the attack or the loss was Ms. Kerrigan's costume for the Olympics in Lillehammer, created by Vera Wang, a starkly tasteful white skating dress with transparent sleeves.
"Most people probably looked at her and said, 'Poor Nancy couldn't afford sparkles,' " said Ms. Rowley, although in reality that design squarely located Ms. Wang, herself a former figure skater, in the public consciousness and on the fashion scene.
But it was apparently a one-shot. True, Ms. Wang still designs for figure skaters, among them 25-year-old Michelle Kwan, widely expected to lead the American team in Turin. But far from having elevated the level of taste in the sport that helped define her career, Ms. Wang continues to seem like an emissary from a distant planet, where spangled Heidi outfits of the sort favored by former skate stars like Nicole Bobek are rarely seen.
"Most skaters are in a rut," said Marc Bouwer, the evening-wear designer who dresses the Olympic hopeful Sarah Hughes and who also outfitted Ms. Kwan for the 1998 Olympics in a sleeveless tunic of ice-blue panne velvet that was, as he said, "very, very simple, but deceptively so."
The technical challenges of designing for skaters are formidable, Mr. Bouwer explained: it is no cinch to come up with uniforms for athletes required to look elegant while executing death- and gravity-defying spins and multiple midair rotations, all to an aural backdrop of, say, "Carmina Burana" or the saxophone stylings of Kenny G.
"The outfits have to function and be very strong and, unlike most clothes, not be binding," he said. "They have to allow the skater to have absolute freedom." The limits of that freedom, as Mr. Bouwer defines them, "are costumey circus outfits," as well as flesh-colored boots and plunging backs or necklines held together with "illusion" insets of nude mesh with a few fake diamonds sprinkled on.
It was not always thus, Scott Hamilton, the former Olympic champion, television commentator and producer of ice shows, said last week by telephone from Los Angeles. There was a time when sober good taste was the figure-skating standard, when Dick Button took to the ice in a modified Eisenhower jacket or tuxedo, when Peggy Fleming drifted across the gelid perfection of the professional ice pond wearing a high-necked mock turtleneck that owed a lot to Rudi Gernreich and that was subtly, ineffably cool.
Even the fake 70's naturalism of Dorothy Hamill's famous wedge hairdo seems somehow hip by contrast with the hard, lacquered surfaces now favored by practitioners of the sport.
"You look at all the beading and the sparkles, and the cringe meter goes to the red," said Mr. Hamilton, who attributes the current stylistic nadir to the influence of television, which made skating "more about show business and theatrics and less about athleticism" and, oddly, to an expanding fan base for the sport.
"It's a cultural thing," he said. "In lots of areas in the world, that theatrical look is desirable."
Mr. Hamilton makes no secret of the stylistic bloopers that marked his own career. What point would there be, he asked, in shirking the pirate shirts of yesteryear, the stretch-satin jumpsuits or even the mullet? They're all out there on the Web.
"I went with the flow of trying to do what everyone else was doing," he said. "What happens is, the still photo of your performance comes out and the athleticism is lost unless you're caught in the air upside down."
The triple axels, the double salchows, the toe loops and camel spins count for little if all anyone remembers your sad costume. "I'm no fashion critic, but if the costume is a little bit subdued and not with a neon sign flashing, 'Look at me,' it lets what you put down on the ice stand on its own," Mr. Hamilton said.
"I don't want to be critical," he added. "But you look at some of the stuff that's out there now - the gloves indoors, the sequins, the animals on outfits - and it all looks like a cry for help."