Ashley Wagner of the United States competes in the Figure Skating Team Ladies Short Program during day one of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Iceberg Skating Palace on February 8, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

If you’ve been hanging around The Gloss for the past few weeks, you know we’re pretty into the figure skating portion of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. We’ve brought you the best costumes ever, the worst costumes ever, as well as our commentary on the costumes in men’s and pairs skating, not to mention the amazing contortionists of the ladies’ short program. And as much as we love to snark on the sometimes ridiculous costumes that skaters wear, the reality is that those outfits are carefully designed, meticulously constructed and damn expensive.

I did a little research on what it takes to design, create and pay for those sparkly pieces of Spandex, and wow. There seems to be a huge range as to what elite level costumes can actually cost, but I was told everything from $500 up to $5000, with the most common estimation for an Olympic skating costume at around $3000. Skaters competing at a high level, like in the Olympics, usually have two costumes per season, one for their long program and one for their short program. They also might have an additional third one that they can wear in exhibitions (performances that happen after a competition is over and are not judged). A skater might spend up to $10,000 a year just on costuming.

Why, exactly, do these skimpy little outfits cost so much? Skating costumes tend to follow the general trends in fashion, except with a lot more glitz and glamour. Marni Halasa, a figure skating coach at Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers in New York City, explains:

“Today, skating costumes take cues from fashion’s runways and popular culture, perhaps with an emphasis on dresses being more tailored and designed for the skater and the music of their program.  Currently, we are seeing costumes that are designed to be less gawdy, showing more of the line of the body, with quality fabrics that highlight color.”

Halasa often works with with designer Stephanie Handler (who made 2014 Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu‘s costume and has also designed several for Johnny Weir). Costumes for competitions like Olympics or the World Championships must be designed very carefully, Halasa says, because “…the costume truly is on the world stage, under the scrutiny of skating judges, the public and television close-ups.  Because of these requirements, the elite-level costume requires a lot of thought, a unique, often more sophisticated design, better-quality materials, more rhinestones and definitely more hours of labor.” Basically, it’s a custom couture outfit designed for heavy athletic activity.

Yumi Barnett-Nakamura, who designs costumes for her company Yumi Couture, describes the design process:

“I work directly with the skaters and coaches. First they send me their music and this helps me to start developing design ideas. I talk to the coaches a lot when developing the design and also with the skaters to understand their tastes and preferences. For example, some skaters like long sleeves and other insist on no sleeves. Sometimes I wait until they complete the program choreography, especially with the top competitive skaters. I go to the rink to watch the program and discuss with the coach and skater how the costume can highlight parts of the program and what parts of the dress need to be changed to enhance the program. This process gives me a good image of the dress design that allows me to complete a drawing to show to the coaches and skater. A deep knowledge about competitive skating goes into developing the design. After they review the design I may make changes to the design, get the coach’s and skater’s approval and begin making the dress. It takes about two months to complete a costume.”

Costumes for high-level skaters are painstakingly designed and created, often with the skater’s own personality or life circumstances in mind. For example, Ashley Wagner‘s costume for her upcoming free skate (long program) this week in Sochi was designed with the strong character of Delilah (of Samson and Delilah fame) as inspiration. Her costume designer Jan Longmire told TIME that she wanted to design Wagner, who was criticized after being named to the 2014 Olympic team in place of Mirai Nagasu, a dress that served as a “suit of armor:” “I needed to get her into a place of some kind of empowerment…I told her that this dress was for her to kick butt for no other reason than that she deserved the power in that dress.”

Nick Verreos, who stars on Lifetime’s Project Runway: Under the Gunn (Thursdays at 9 pm), maintains a blog where he provides commentary on figure skating costumes and also runs his own fashion label, says that figure skating costumes should provide a fun middle ground between fashion and costume:

I always get frustrated when—for example—I watch the male figure skaters and it looks as if they slopped on a basic dress shirt and black pant, then got a belt from Ross Dress For Less; it’s as if they didn’t try. I like flashy AND elegant, as long as it is done beautifully and works well with the music and program.

And, as we know from the crazy-looking flesh colored pieces required to keep everything together, the costumes have to be well-constructed. That’s often why we see the pantyhose-ish material (actually called “Power Flex”) that looks awkward in photos, but really serves the purpose of keeping the skater both modest and comfortable. Allison Brooker, who has designed and created costumes for Michelle Kwan and Mirai Nagasu through her company Se_Ku Skatewear, says:

“All skating sportswear needs to be constructed of four-way stretch fabrics with over-lock seams that will not ‘pop’ or break under the stress of intense movement.”

So, combine the hours spent designing the dress, with incredibly careful construction and hundreds (possibly thousands) of Swarovski crystals and you’ve got a super expensive skating dress on your hands. It’s not just the dresses, either. Halasa estimates that custom skate boots can cost from $500 to $1000 and custom blades from $500 to $750. She says:

“Skates can last up to a year, maybe longer or less, depending on the skater. Ice dancers need support but they also need their boots to bend. Ladies and men doing triples and quads may need skates to be replaced more often since they are doing difficult jumps that have more impact on their boots.”

And figure skating costuming isn’t cheap even if you’re competing at a lower level. Pat Pearsall, who designs for mainly novice and junior level skaters, has a base price of $900. Her higher-end dresses average about $1900 (those prices include the ever-important Swarovski crystals). Still, many lower-level skaters buy ready-made costumes and have designers add rhinestones, crystals or other embellishments, as a way to get a personalized costume without the crazy cost.

To most of us, figure skating is a fun thing to watch on TV, a ballet on ice with a hefty dose of drama and pageantry. Hell, most people don’t even pay attention to skating outside of the Winter Olympics. What viewers and fans almost never take into consideration is the massive cost of this beautiful sport, the fact that skaters pay big money to compete wearing what are essentially sparkly couture swimsuits with skirts. Of course, no one is forcing anyone to shell out $3000 dollars on a skating dress, but knowing how much things cost just to get out there on the ice gives me a slightly different view of the competition.

For skaters, figure skating is a truly gigantic investment of time, energy and money in a sport that often glorifies looks and styling just as much as it does athletic ability. When we’re watching, let’s appreciate the grace and athleticism of these talented skaters, right alongside the blinding light coming from the copious amounts of expensive crystals.

Photo: Getty Images