Along with sleeves, figure skating's 'Hairy Armpit Rule' on the retreat

A quiet revolution is going on in figure skating, and it’s not about quads. Rather, it’s about hairy armpits.

As Skate Canada International begins this week, there’s buzz about a sleeveless costume worn by U.S. champion Adam Rippon last week at Skate America, the first of the six Grand Prix events.

The Hairy Armpit Rule, as I call it, has dominated men’s apparel in figure skating for almost three decades. During all those years men have skated to Pink Floyd, Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix, with rarely a hint of a shoulder to be seen - or an armpit, thanks to the late Heiko Fischer, a five-time West German champion.

At the 1988 Calgary Olympics, Fischer pushed sartorial convention in his free program to “West Side Story.” People whispered when he came out in a sleeveless top, adorned with red sequins designed to look like blood dripping down his body. The reaction was: “Yikes. Too much information.”

The International Skating Union would have none of the sight of hairy armpits, and several months later its members adopted a rule that banned men from going sleeveless. They made a lot of other changes, too, to rein in a trend toward more naked, showbiz-like, even vulgar costumes. Skaters had become glitter dolls. But after July 1, 1988, skirts had to cover the hips and posteriors. Bare midriffs were out. Excessive decoration and props like hats or feather boas were no-nos. Men also were forbidden from wearing tights.

Frensh skater wore an elaborate costume for his ca.1993 Conan the Barbarian routine.
Frensh skater wore an elaborate costume for his ca.1993 Conan the Barbarian routine.

Stray over that line, and you would be subject to a deduction, like France’s Philippe Candeloro, who wore an elaborate sleeveless, fur-wrapped costume for his Conan The Barbarian routine during the 1993-1994 season. Later, he added sleeves.


Men still can’t wear tights, but the sleeveless rule has recently and quietly fallen out of the rule books. Two-time world ice dancing champion Guillaume Cizeron of France tested the waters early this season by wearing a sleeveless vest at the French Masters, but it’s an event without international judges.

Enter U.S. champion Rippon, who won a bronze medal at Skate America last week in Chicago despite being cited by one judge for a costume violation - a sleeveless top with a sheer back - in his short program to club music. The stylish Rippon received no point deduction, though, because a majority of judges must agree that it is a violation. The others were okay with it.

The one dissenting judge may have thought Rippon’s costume contravened the current “excessive nudity” rule, or that it was “garish or theatrical.”

“I wanted to take advantage of the rule [allowing sleeveless tops], because I knew it would be something not everyone would be doing,” Rippon said. “I want to stand out. I want to show my performance is up there and it’s the best in the world. I want to push boundaries with the costumes. I want to push boundaries with my music choices.”

In light of the warning that he got at Skate America, Rippon plans to wear a modified version of the shirt in coming days.  He may make some changes to the sheer back.

Joanne McLeod, coach of Skate Canada competitor Kevin Reynolds, isn’t bothered by the flashing of armpits. “It is more couture now [at least to show shaved armpits],” she said. Besides, men need to be cool during the heat of competition, she added.

Others, though, think it’s the pits. Peter Oppegard, coach of American Grant Hochstein, who is competing in Mississauga, said he wouldn’t go for the hairy exposure - though a flash of skin here and there could look quite elegant.