All That Came Before

Published in Powder Magazine (46.GG) | 2018 Gear Guide

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The room was drab, lit with fluorescent bulbs, and it smelled like my grandmother’s attic. But the vintage ski clothes that hung on the circular metal racks were glamorous: pleated wool pants with stirrups; sweaters with geometric Nordic patterns; Bogner one-pieces with cinch belts, shiny buckles, shoulder pads, and tapered legs. A cardboard box held old goggles that looked more appropriate for scuba diving than for skiing. And fur—some of it faux, a lot of it real. 

I wound up at a thrift store in Ketchum, Idaho, after a rainstorm in February canceled my plans to go skiing. A friend and I spent the afternoon puddle jumping through town. We loitered in fancy hotel lobbies adorned with black-and-white photos of old Hollywood stars. We sipped whiskey at a dive. By the time we reached the thrift store at the edge of town, our jackets were dripping water. A bell jingled when we pushed the door open and stepped inside the time capsule. As with the photos in the hotel, the thrift store in Sun Valley was a throwback to when American ski towns were not just the place to ski—but the place to be seen skiing. 

Fashion has had a place in skiing, and skiing in fashion, since Johannes Badrutt ignited winter tourism in Switzerland in 1864 with an invitation to British glitterati to visit St. Moritz outside of summer. Skiing soon followed, as did clothing and gear suitable for wintry places.

“La couture sportif” emerged in the early 1900s with skiing-specific knit trousers and military-inspired wool jackets to accompany the leather boots and wooden skis of the time. Gradually the styles trickled overseas to influence trends in the U.S. In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division came home from World War II and opened ski resorts in New England, Colorado, and farther West. People started using metal instead of wood to make skis. And textiles were transformed with synthetic fabrics like polyester and Spandex. Klaus Obermeyer, who is now 97 years old, was a ski instructor in Aspen when he made a parka out of a down blanket, which led him to found his outerwear company in 1947. A few years later, Willy Bogner Sr. made the first stretch ski pants, said to be modeled by Marilyn Monroe. In 1960, French ski racer Jean Vuarnet won Olympic gold for the downhill at Squaw Valley on Head skis, the first to have metal, and he launched a high-end eyewear brand with the sunglasses he wore when he crossed the finish line. Robert W. Gore invented Gore-Tex in 1969. 

Today’s ski equipment and apparel are the culmination of decades of design. And they continue to evolve with better ski shapes and lighter fabrics built to endure years of exposure to the harshest elements. Patagonia is making jackets out of recycled Gore-Tex. Head is constructing skis out of the same metals used to build spaceships, among the menu of other woods, metals, and methods that ski-makers can choose from. And hybrid ski boots now have the stiffness to charge at the resort and walk modes for comfortable backcountry use.  

As the pages in this magazine show, we’ve come a long way, and the gear in this guide has a Skier’s Choice stamp of approval because it continues to push the evolution of skiing. 

Back in the Ketchum thrift store, I mined through the racks until my arms were loaded with old ski clothes. I pulled the curtain shut on the fitting room and tried on pants, sweaters, and at least two one-pieces. I settled on a pair of brown wool stretch pants and a white ski sweater with pink and green stripes that reminded me of bubble gum. 

The next morning, temperatures dipped and fresh snow blanketed the mountain. I pushed off the chairlift at the top of the ski resort to chase my friends through a field of powder and down Sun Valley’s famously long, rolling ski runs—likely much faster than skiers of decades past thanks to my modern gear. That afternoon, I changed into my vintage costume for a friend’s on-hill birthday party. I put on pink lipstick and a neck scarf, and channeled the skiers and designers from the ’40s who wore outfits just like this. I clicked in to my bindings and followed my friends to the slopes. I felt great, and I looked good, too.