When the U.S. Olympic contingent strolls in to Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium on Friday, the team will once again be outfitted by Ralph Lauren. In 2012, the American outfitter dressed our Olympic heroes in berets and ties. This time around, swimmer Michael Phelps, gymnast Simone Biles, and the rest of our athletes will be wearing blue blazers, white denim pants, red-white-and-blue boat shoes, and a shirt that resembles the Russian flag.
In advance of Friday’s opening ceremony, Slate sports editor Josh Levin spoke with Slate editor-in-chief and Olympics fashion expert Julia Turner about the challenge of designing a national costume, possible replacements for Ralph Lauren, and the shocking absence of a Rio beret. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Josh Levin: Let’s begin with a statement of purpose. What is the point of an opening ceremony outfit?
Julia Turner: This isn’t the performance wear that the athletes put on to compete. These outfits are supposed to represent the national character in some way. You can think of them as a folkloric pageant costume that represents American-ness with the sound turned up to 11. It’s not as though you want to judge these outfits by saying, “Would I want to wear this on the street?” You need to judge them as, “Does this seem like it will make the athletes feel excited and proud to represent an exuberant and televisually optimized version of American-ness in this huge and goofy pageant that is the opening ceremony?”
So, how do these outfits meet that challenge?
This is another disappointing turn from Ralph Lauren, who has been designing the opening ceremony outfits for the U.S. Olympic team since 2008. Ralph Lauren is a natural brand to design these outfits. The whole shtick of that company is retro-heritage Americana, but these outfits are ugly in many ways. Would you like me to enumerate?
So, No. 1, the blazer: We’ve been doing blazers for a few years now. At the London Games, the blazers were double-breasted. Here we have a single-breasted blazer that does not strike me as a significant update. In general, the notion that athletes must represent their country in blazers seems a little bit square. It sounds like the flag-bearer’s jacket, which will be worn by Michael Phelps, will have an electroluminescent USA panel on the back. This is on trend—the theme of the Met Gala this year was essentially Clothes: They Can Have Lights on Them—and it is possible to achieve a cool theatrical effect with this kind of technology. But glowing letters seem a bit billboard-esque.
Then there is the matter of the shirt they’re wearing underneath. The stripes that are in fashion at the moment are a finer stripe, or maybe a varied width stripe. This is a very indecisive, middle-of-the-road, blocky stripe. Plus, it’s not the best moment to have your look confused with the Russian flag. And then finally, this is a square and dated thing to complain about, but that huge Polo logo: It seems really tacky for Ralph Lauren to compete with the brand of the United States. The current mode for companies is to go a little bit subtle and subdued with their marks, so not only is this bad taste and ugly, it’s also sort of out of style. I’m sure it turns up on TV nicely, and that’s why somebody in the Ralph Lauren marketing office thought it was a good idea to keep it. But it is time to retire the Polo pony.
What about the white denim pants?
Those seem fine. Skinny jeans for athletes—why not? I bet that’s a piece they would use again later. It seems very summery. I have no objections to the jeans.
The two items that we have not mentioned yet that are a key part of this outfit are the red-white-and-blue boat shoes and the wrist wrap.
I will confess a certain fondness for the boat shoes. They are definitely dopey but in kind of a cute and patriotic way. An outfit for the opening ceremony is supposed to be a costume of American heritage dress. For the last decade, we seem to have interpreted that national costume as high WASP. Part of the challenge of figuring out who might do a better job than Ralph Lauren is trying to figure out what other kinds of outfits might make sense. But in the version where you’re doing high WASP Americana as shtick, these boat shoes are actually kind of witty and a goofily loud protestation of American-ness.
OK, the wrist strap. It strikes me that it is something akin to wearing a red-white-and-blue Puka shell necklace. Is wrist strap an actual term of art in fashion?
I would call this a bracelet. And I wish the whole outfit were more like this bracelet in a way. This bracelet seems goofily specific to patriotic Americana. It’s not so much the Puka shell necklace. It’s the rope bracelet, a patriotic version of that, which seems appropriate for a beachy town like Rio. But in terms of the optics of this, nobody’s going to notice the bracelet in the pageantry of this big ceremony on television. This seems to me more like a thing that it is attached to the outfit so that people who feel patriotic this summer will go to RalphLauren.com and buy it, because it is presumably more affordable than the other things and far less hideous.
[Laughs.] I did not know that was how much it costs. That’s preposterous. OK, moderately more affordable.
There has to be a challenge here in outfitting athletes, who range in size from tiny Simone Biles to enormous DeAndre Jordan, so should we be giving Ralph Lauren a little bit more of a pass given that challenge?
Designers are notoriously bad at designing for various body types, but there are American designers who are up for that challenge. I do think coming up with an outfit that would look appealing on different body types is part of the job. I also wonder why there’s total uniformity. You see these days an approach to dressing bridesmaids where you pick a color or a set of reoccurring things, and then have them mix and match. I think that the American Olympic team should consider the modern bridesmaid approach. Even the shirts here—I feel like the whole ensemble would look better if there were three or four different types of striped shirts people could pick from: one with a stripe of a varying width, one with a micro red stripe, one with a really big rugby stripe. The uniformity of the sad, indecisive, mediocre stripe is the major weakness of this outfit, I believe.
In 2014, you wrote an ode to the opening ceremony sweater. That was also from Ralph Lauren, and it was a classic ugly sweater concept with big white stars, a huge American flag patch: It looked sort of like a patchwork quilt. Do you chalk that up to the winter being more in line with something Ralph Lauren can do well? Or is there something about the winter that is more quintessentially American?
I think, in general, the winter outfits for the U.S. team have been better than the summer outfits, and I have a theory as to why. The level of formality these opening ceremony outfits should strike seems constantly in question, and Ralph Lauren consistently goes a little bit more formal than makes sense for our Summer Olympics athletes or that they seem comfortable with. Whereas an off-the-slopes look for winter more naturally lends itself as a bit more casual and fun, and that sweater is obviously a hideous thing nobody would really wear in the world, but that is what made it perfect for the opening ceremony. It looked very costume-ish, it took elements of things that an American might wear in an elaborately decorated patterned sweater and amped it up so it worked as pageantry. It was spirited, and fun, and playful. Nobody looked like they were pretending to go to the sports office, which is what the blazers denote to me.
What companies should we be hoping the U.S. Olympic team goes with in 2018, 2020, and beyond?
First of all, I want to advocate in the strongest possible terms that Ralph Lauren’s ties to the U.S. Olympic team must be severed. They were a decent bet, they had a good run, they produced some plausible outfits and some bad ones, but this company should not have a monopoly on this Americana fashion opportunity for decades to come. I think it is more urgent we resolve this issue by 2020, because I trust Ralph Lauren to do a decent job with the next Winter Olympics. But there must be a new designer by 2020.
In terms of looking at American design talent right now, there are a couple of options. One approach is to stick with the idea that a classic WASP-tinged Americana, or preppy, is the American style we want to play with. If we’re going that direction, I think two natural names to consider would be Michael Kors, who has a bit of a flashy jet-set look that frankly is not really to my taste: If you think of Ralph Lauren as new money pretending to be old money, Michael Kors is like new money pretending to be new money. It’s a little gaudier. But he is a designer who has spoken in his Project Runway role about the importance of accommodating different kinds of bodies and how they move, and I think you could see a plausible and interesting set of looks from him.
Another designer who is also sort of a modern prepster is Tory Burch. She’s primarily known for the hideously over-logoed ballet flats she pioneered, but she is a designer who very interestingly combines preppy and bohemian concepts with a really interesting eye for prints and color. She also launched a sport line in the last year or two, so her design apparatus is starting to think more about athletic bodies.
Another approach would be to break out of the preppy, WASP-y concept. Calvin Klein, which is known for minimalism, is doing a lot of interesting work these days. The French team had a rather high-fashion look at the London Games that might be something like what you would get if Calvin Klein were to take on dressing the American athletes. Another big-name American designer is Marc Jacobs. I’m not a huge fan of his work, which is poppy, and punchy, and goofy. But his influences are really wide-ranging; the silhouettes he uses are very boxy, and odd, and interesting; and I imagine you would get a really cool array of patterns, and shapes, and designs on the team—something that would feel a little bit more like the classic national costume than a boring blazer.
The third approach is something that’s a little bit sportier. There are a couple companies that would be interesting to look at in what’s now being called the “athleisure” space, which is a big fashion trend at the moment. One is Patagonia. If you think of the opening ceremony as an opportunity to shout a message from the rooftops, Patagonia is a company that is American, that believes in making really durable goods that last, that gives a lifetime guarantee on products. They have a really interesting, fun way with styles and performance technology. I imagine they could come up with a look for the Summer Games that had a more casual but still bright and exciting and expressive feel of some of the Winter Games looks. And maybe after a decade, they could have an interesting recycling program where they would take elements from previous years’ costumes, and use them again, and think about sustainability and other new American values.
The other athleisure-style brand I would point to is this new company called Outdoor Voices. They are a bit more of a stretch because they mostly make really nice, really stylish yoga clothes and sweatpants and hangout clothes. But I would be super interested in seeing what they came up with if charged with the task of elevating an athleisure look so it felt like an exuberant expression of country-hood designed for the TV camera.
You have very strong feelings about one article of clothing that is not present in this year’s designs, and that is the Olympic beret. Do you feel a pang of regret and sadness that you don’t have the beret to hate on in Rio?
The Olympic beret is one of the greatest sartorial mysteries of our time. It is unclear why anybody ever thought it was smart to put American athletes in berets: It’s not an American hat, it’s not a sporty hat, it’s not a hat that is particularly flattering or easy to wear. The greatest thing this summer outfit has going for it is that somebody at Ralph Lauren had the restraint not to make a beret.
I have a very strong feeling—a premonition—that they are trying to create McRib-esque scarcity and get people very excited for the long-awaited return of the Olympic beret in Tokyo. I will bet you $1 there will be a Tokyo beret.
I think there are two potential outcomes for 2020: the return of the Ralph Lauren beret, which would make me weep, or a vigorous reinvention of the opening ceremony outfit by some other designer, which is what I dearly hope comes to pass.