The Olympic Games open in Tokyo tomorrow. The world’s finest athletes will march proudly behind their flag-bearers. And when they do, their outfits will be on parade too.
Clothing is necessary. But for some folks, it can be all-consuming and a distraction. God gives some guidance about what is appropriate in the Bible. But He focuses more on character than on outward appearances. Peter warns believers not to “let your adorning be external” but rather “the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” (1 Peter 3:3-4)
Still, Olympic gear makes for lively discussions. But some people contend it’s not just about fashion: The athletes’ getups reflect tradition, national pride, and, well, showmanship.
First up for the fashion debate is the hours-long Parade of Nations. The year-long wait due to pandemic restrictions has made fans extra eager to see the Olympic wardrobes.
This Olympics, the Czech Republic will feature traditional indigo block-print design—complete with matching fans. (Really!) Israel’s athletes will sport see-through jackets with huge pockets. Designer Emporio Armani clad Italy’s team in track suits with a reinterpretation of Japan’s rising Sun in the red, green, and white of the Italian flag.
Australian athletes will wear sand-colored blazers lined with the names of the country’s 320 Olympic gold medalists. For the closing ceremony, Canada’s Olympic organizers teamed with Levi’s to produce a denim “Canadian tuxedo” jacket alive with Japanese street-style graffiti. It will be worn with white denim pants.
Things used to be a lot simpler for the athletes, fashion-wise. There was no parade or opening ceremony; athletes wore whatever they chose.
“In the early days it was no big deal,” says David Wallechinksy, executive board member and past president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “People would just come on. If [team members] wanted to dress alike, they did.”
Today, parade uniforms often show respect for a host country and honor traditions, athletic feats, and patriotism.
Alison Brown, host of the Olympic fan podcast “Keep the Flame Alive,” says outfitting Olympic teams, including those competing in the Paralympics, isn’t easy.
“They have to fit all kinds of body types. Think tiny gymnasts, brawny weightlifters, and lanky basketball players. They have to convey something about the nation, honor the host, be serious enough for the solemnity of the occasion but practical enough to be comfortable for hours of standing in the heat,” she says.
Brown appreciates the Czech uniforms. They include the team’s mainstay, a gymnast, built into the design. “They managed to blend elements of Czech folk tradition, traditional Japanese indigo dying techniques, and a call out to the great Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, but still keep the outfit wearable and comfortable,” she says.
Of Canada’s denim jackets, she says: “I wonder if anyone over 12 really wants to wear it.” Ouch.
Lucia Kinghorn of Hudson’s Bay, which helped create Canada’s uniforms, is aware that not everyone likes the gear. “For as many naysayers, we have even more fans,” she claims. “We’re proud of the thoughtful design behind Team Canada’s clothing and happy that so many people are talking about it.”
Brown is also unimpressed by the looks for Team USA. They include lightweight, stretchy blue denim pants for the opening parade and white denim pants for the closing ceremony.
“The U.S. has stayed with the same designer, Ralph Lauren, as it has for years, leading to another yachting look. Yawn,” she says. “Also, it’s expected to be very hot in Tokyo. Jeans, a knit top, scarf, and a blazer? Who wants to wear denim in that kind of heat and humidity?”
Brown’s favorite parade look so far is Mexico’s. “The blazer includes one floral lapel in traditional Zapotec embroidery. So beautiful without being costumey,” Brown says.
Olympic fashion goes beyond the Games. Designers build whole collections for sale to consumers based on what Olympic athletes wear during opening ceremonies.
“It’s a great moment for these brands to show their team spirit and their innovation,” says fashion director Ted Stafford. For the Team USA flag-bearer, that includes a cooling unit Ralph Lauren built into a denim jacket.
“It’s the world stage, and it sets the tone,” Stafford says. “It’s more than just a big fashion show.”
(From left, Czech track cyclist Tomas Babek, hammer thrower Katerina Safrankova, rider Miroslav Trunda, artistic gymnast Aneta Holasova, and rider Miloslav Prihoda wear the new Olympic uniforms for the Tokyo Olympic Summer Games. Ondrej Deml, CTK via AP)