What Your Nation's Olympic Gear Says About You

It might seem odd to expect anything sartorially significant to come out of a sporting event like the Olympic Games, but as it turns out the opening and closing ceremonies in Beijing's majestic "Bird's Nest" stadium are the world's biggest fashion shows. Before more than 90,000 cheering fans and a television audience of approximately two billion, participating countries get the chance to visually telegraph a message about their national spirit to the rest of the world.

Of course, the athletes are in Beijing to compete based on their physical skills, not their ability to outfit themselves, and most viewers probably failed to notice what they were wearing—and certainly didn't read much into it if they did.  But still, the fashion on display revealed some telling truths. From the look of things so far, the Fall/Winter 2008 global fashion season is distinguished by a few discernible trends: slouchy tracksuits, Gallic savoir faire and a healthy dose of reactionary chic.

The biggest sports-related news stateside has been the redesign of the U.S. uniforms by Ralph Lauren, who took the reins from Canadian company Roots. Lauren has built an empire by becoming the unofficial outfitter of the American Dream, marketing an idealized image of America's former ruling class to the nation at large. However, the WASP aesthetic he sells—think of characters from "The Great Gatsby," clothed in tennis whites and delicate tea dresses—has come to represent a classist and racist set of ideals, hardly representative of the current multicultural social fabric of the United States. A strange choice then, to redefine the U.S. team's visual identity in this way, even as it marches further away from the 20th century, when WASP power reached its peak. But if one stops to consider America's shaky status as the world's preeminent superpower, Lauren's nostalgic, retro creations begin to make more sense.

His designs for the Olympic team's appearance at the opening ceremony consisted of navy blue blazers (emblazoned with a gargantuan Polo logo) paired with white button-downs and matching trousers, accessorized with a jaunty white newsboy cap and red, white and blue silk tie or scarf. His ensembles for the closing ceremony are more casual, with white sleeveless knit-sweaters and crisp cotton-shorts. Social conservatives would probably fail to read anything insidious into these outfits—after all, at least the U.S. team looked pulled-together and semi-formal—but the clothes, in and of themselves, are not the problem. The issue is that the Polo brand is built upon an aesthetic intended to communicate to the world, the wearer's successful assimilation into the traditional institutions of upwardly-mobile American culture—the elitist world of typically WASP-only country clubs, prep schools and cotillions. (Never mind that Ralph Lauren, née Lifshitz, was born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrants who most certainly would not have been allowed into the country clubs that many of his designs seem destined for.)

"America has lately suffered something of an identity crisis," explains Claire Hamilton, retail editor of trend-forecasting website WGSN. "Our political failures abroad raise obvious questions about American authority. Ralph Lauren is a globally recognized classic, and more than any other American brand, it embodies a lifestyle, [although] maybe not one that the average American can identify with."

Lauren's clothing may represent an anachronistic era, but it also pays homage to the very contemporary idea of pervasive commercialism. For one thing, the U.S. Olympic team's outfits were made on the cheap in China, the better to bolster the bottom line. Then there is Lauren's vulgar addition of an enormous Polo logo to the breast of the blazers, the effect of which is to nearly eclipse the Olympic logo on the opposite side, and to equate the Olympics and Polo Ralph Lauren as being equal in value. Intelligent marketing perhaps, but not exactly in keeping with the heroic, selfless spirit of achievement that the ancient Greeks had in mind when they inaugurated the Games thousands of years ago. But the fact is, the Olympics are big business. NBC sold more than $1 billion worth of advertising slots, and Ralph Lauren stands to mint a fortune with online sales of a full line of replicas of the Olympic uniforms. (If you'd like to help him out, just head to ralphlauren.com.)

While critiquing the way the United States chooses to represent itself to the world is an activity deserving of its own Olympic category, other countries deserve the spotlight too. Russia chose Bosco Sport to design its outfits, and the firm created cobalt blue (for men) and bright red (for women) suits that serve a dual significance. The first is to evoke the Khrushchev-era, a period marked by a thaw in cold-war relations—an ironic parallel considering that Russia used the beginning of the Olympics as a diversion to invade neighboring Georgia. The second is the intent to recall the myth of the Russian Fire Bird, a beautiful, elusive creature that brings much danger to its pursuers. That's an appropriate message to transmit as the post-Soviet Russian state makes its boldest effort yet to restore part of its former empire.

On a purely aesthetic level, the ceremony provided plenty of ammunition for fashion critics who deplore the relentless trend toward casual wear that has upended notions of formality around the world. One of the most egregious examples of this ultra-relaxed take on team outfits came courtesy of Canada, with tracksuits stitched from a garish red fabric paired with messenger bags, white shorts and caps worn askew—the overall effect being more "aspiring rap star" than "champion athlete." Interestingly, the Canadian uniforms were also some of the most high-tech and culturally inclusive, incorporating eco-friendly, performance fabric that repels sun, wicks perspiration and resists odor; and emblazoned with both Canadian and Chinese symbols. Whatever one thinks about their visual appeal, it can be argued that they are firmly "of the moment," reflecting the contemporary landscape in all its innovative, casual, global glamour. The Canadian public, however, had little affection for them. One puzzled local TV newscast couldn't decide whether they more resembled a "Halloween costume" or " '70s leisure suit."

The most fashion-conscious statement, predictably, came from the French contingent, which sported chic pale grey jackets with hats and berets. The female athletes wore wide red obi-like belts over their jackets, echoing both Asian culture and one of the strongest trends in high fashion. Unlike some other countries, the "meaning" of their elegant uniforms was strictly surface-related, but even so, they still communicated something essential about the French state of mind: a continuing appreciation and affection for a modern sense of chic, with roots in a traditional, national aesthetic.

Some people scoff at the idea that what people wear means anything, but skeptics should consider, at the very least, just how much revenue these uniforms generate. (The contract was worth around $100 million in Canada's case alone). A lot of time, money and thought went into the decisions each country made, and whether people realize it or not, they highlight what appear to be some important truths. The world's two previous sole superpowers are caught in flux, and both are reaching for visual elements that recall their former status. The public isn't quite ready to abandon nationalism in favor of a more inclusive approach— Canada's laudable attempt at multiculturalism mostly yielded mockery. And most of all, if you're interested in high-design, stick to Paris, the epicenter of sophisticated style—the Olympics is no place to go looking for fashion gold, unless, that is, the French are in the game.

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