When millions of people worldwide are watching you, you seem naturally to become much more aware of appearances. The Winter Olympics in Vancouver this year have proven this rule. Suddenly the world is fascinated with the Norwegian curling team’s choice of pants, Shaun White’s distressed denim, and figure skaters’ politically-incorrect costume choices.
Fashion has been intricately connected to the Olympic Games since day one—literally. The Opening Ceremony is a time for national pride, when every participating country shows off its athletes in matching uniforms. More often than not, these uniforms tap into national symbols and stereotypes. Athletes from Bermuda wore knee-length shorts and the French came in berets. The British stuck to an updated preppy look, while the American outfits were reminiscent of romanticized East Coast America circa the 1950s, with Ralph Lauren white slacks, navy blazers, and jaunty, white, newspaper boy-style caps. Ralph Lauren, with its widely recognized “classic American” style, has been the official outfitter of U.S. Olympic teams since 2008. Inspired by the Games, the brand sells its collection online to the general public as well—sweaters, the famous polo T-shirts, cozy hats, blazers, and jackets—all with 2010 Vancouver Olympics graphics displayed prominently.
Ralph Lauren is not the only high-end designer getting in on the business of Olympic fashion. Fashion magazine Vogue has put together a style guide inspired by the games, with different looks with titles such as “Going for the Gold,” “High-Tech Sports,” and “Snow Season,” among others. The guide kept a more athletic (although somewhat impractical and expensive) focus, and showcased lots of designer skis, snow boots, and ski boots. Well-known designer Vera Wang is also closely connected with the Olympic Games, having often collaborated with figure skaters on their costumes. Wang was a skater herself when she was younger, but unfortunately she never made it onto the U.S. Olympic team. This year, she worked on a costume for skater Evan Lysacek: a black bodysuit with two crystal serpents around the neckline. In the past, Wang has designed for Michelle Kwan and Nancy Kerrigan.
Many sports apparel companies have also taken a cue from the Olympics to create more high-tech, appropriate sports gear for athletes. For instance, Oakley has designed custom snow goggles and sunglasses for the various nations.
Fashion designers are not the only ones being inspired by the Olympics. In the same way countries can use clothes to express their culture, the athletes are also able to use the publicity to express their individual identities. According to snowboarder Nate Holland, the U.S. snowboarding team, including Shaun White, tends to dress “emo” and wear tight pants. Perhaps because of this publicized complaint, the team ended up wearing noticeably baggy, distressed-denim jeans, topped with plaid shirts. Maybe Holland succeeded in getting the tight jeans banned, but the snowboarders were still able to represent a younger, hipper crowd. Another snowboarder also got in trouble for his clothing choices. Japanese Olympic officials banned Japanese snowboarder Kazuhiro Kokubo from the Opening Ceremony because of his untucked shirt, loose tie, and baggy pants.
Figure skating, above all other sports, is notable for its fashion. Ideal skating costumes are sparkly and mesmerizing from every angle but still function as athletic gear. Outifts have to fit well and mesh with the music and routine, and tend to involve minuscule miniskirts. Wang makes the formula for a good costume seem simple with her elegant designs. However, there were also a fair number of fashion mishaps this season. Most disturbing were the Russian pair skaters with an Australian aboriginal-inspired dance, with politically incorrect costumes to match. Australian authorities were not impressed. There was also a skater from Belgium who dressed up as a skeleton, a pair of Germans clothed as clowns, and multiple hick- and cowboy-inspired outfits on the ice. It is presumed that such choices are made in an attempt to tell a meaningful story through the skating routine, but such costumes are usually a distraction from the athletes’ actual talent.
Another unfortunately eye-catching uniform in Vancouver belonged to the Norwegian curling team. Their brightly-colored argyle pants, resembling pajama bottoms, initially drew criticism but are now beginning to earn recognition as beneficial in the curling world and at the Vancouver Games. The outfits helped draw attention to a sport that is often misunderstood or overlooked (especially among younger crowd) and have sold out in many stores.
Looking on the Internet, it is easy to find complaints that more attention was focused on Olympic fashion than on the Games themselves. But it is hard to differentiate the two, as sports and looks are both crucial parts of our culture today. Not only can the Olympic Games bring together athletes and fans, but they can also bring inspiration to designers, communicate cultural identity through fashion, and draw younger generations’ attention to certain sports. The 2010 Winter Games may have ended, but the fashion statements it made will last—at least until the next Olympics come around.