On Friday in South Korea, America’s Winter Olympics contingent marched into Pyeongchang Stadium sporting Ralph Lauren’s latest take on opening ceremony fashion. Earlier this week, Slate sports editor Josh Levin spoke with Slate editor-in-chief and Olympics fashion expert Julia Turner about gigantic gloves, heated jackets, and her view that Ralph Lauren must be stripped of its position as the designer of the American Olympic team’s attire. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Josh Levin: Julia, what do you make of this year’s opening ceremony outfits?
Julia Turner: These outfits have come in for a lot of criticism, particularly because they require the athlete to wear ludicrously large gloves that look as though they were designed for grilling by some sadist who then wants the grillers to go up in flames because the fringe of their large gloves has caught on fire. But actually, I think these outfits are pretty good.
I’m surprised to hear that, given your hatred of Ralph Lauren, the designers of this year’s opening and closing ceremony outfits and the designers of opening and closing ceremony outfits of years past. Did Ralph Lauren do something different this time or have you warmed to the traditional Ralph Lauren Olympics aesthetic?
No, I want to be absolutely clear here: It is time for Ralph Lauren to relinquish its position as the sole purveyor of U.S. Olympic team outfits. They’ve been doing it now since 2008. They’ve produced some good outfits and some bad ones, but it’s just boring at this point. I’m sure that the U.S. Olympic Committee is comfortable with them. They’re a large and stable fashion company. I’m sure the team can count on them to deliver everything in the right sizes, by the right date, and perhaps there’s a risk aversion that’s driving the continuation of the relationship, but Ralph Lauren has had its run.
However, I do think Ralph Lauren has done better with Winter Olympics outfits than Summer Olympics outfits. For the Winter Olympics, they tend to go for a fresh-off-the-slopes, ski chalet vibe and produce some interesting wearable sportswear. For the Summer Olympics, they seem to always want the Olympic team to be going to a mixer at a country club, which both sends a weird signal about American priorities and makes the athletes look awkward and uncomfortable.
You were extremely excited about the derided, ugly Olympic opening ceremony sweater from 2014. It strikes me that this year’s opening ceremony sweater, which is navy with a kind of crest design at the top, is a little bit boring, and they’re not embracing the vibrant aesthetic that you loved four years ago.
I don’t really have concerns with this sweater. The sweater is not the point of this outfit—it’s intended as a backdrop for the most ostentatious part of the outfit, which is obviously the gloves. My one cavil about it is that Ralph Lauren seems to have designed a very strange shield featuring the stars and stripes of the American flag, as though drawing from heraldry. It’s as if there is a House of America that we’re supporting with these outfits. That’s just weird. The whole point of America is that we don’t have houses and heralds and shields. At Ralph Lauren, they cannot design without a logo. We should be grateful that they’ve replaced the polo horse with the shield, I suppose, but I wish they could just let go of the need to put a big graphic object in the middle of all their designs.
But with this particular outfit this year, the sweater is going to live underneath these parkas that have electronic heating technology within them, which we can get to in a moment if you like. But the ugly sweater of this outfit is the glove, the conspicuous, absurd, and attention-grabbing garment. Really, the sweater is a plate upon which the gloves are served. And I would like the opportunity to defend the gloves.
What is it that athletes do during the opening ceremony?
Exactly. What would make the waves of your team notable, friendly, boisterous, and exuberant? Tripling the size of your hands by encasing them in gigantic gloves, and then putting fringe on those gloves so that as you wave, entire clouds of suede are bouncing around your head. The Americans are going to be the most ostentatious, most noticeable, and most admirable wavers in this whole opening ceremony. It’s an example of the designer thinking through what the actual purpose of the outfit is, and coming up with a completely clever and hilarious solution. Obviously, these gloves look ridiculous when trotted out on the Today show, but they’re going to look great when the athletes are walking around the stadium.
The gloves have also come in for criticism because they have a Southwestern, Native American–meets–Route 66 truck stop, tchotchke vibe to them. The Olympic rings and the American flag are beaded. Between the fringe and the beading, there have been some claims and concerns about appropriation. I hear those. However, I do think that, in the long view, we want the American Olympic team outfits to be referencing a broader set of cultural influences on American life.
My main complaint with Ralph Lauren over the last 10 years has been that they’re obsessed with the high WASP Americana of the country club, and then also obsessed with foppish Europeanism of the sort that some of those country clubs are aping. It’s time to broaden out the set of cultural influences on American pageantry beyond the WASP. This is perhaps a clumsy way of doing it, but I think the homage here to American roadside shtick, rather than just preps in blazers, is a step in the right direction.
Do you think that, if we went to Ralph Lauren HQ and looked at their vision board, we would see the Hamburger Helper guy?
I hope so.
I do want to talk about the heated jacket. In all the promotional material I’ve read, the main takeaway is that the jacket is hot. There’s 11 hours of heat built in. There are three different settings. There’s a battery pack. I feel overwhelmed with information about this hot jacket.
Yeah, fashion has been flirting with wearable technology for nearly 20 years now. At the Rio Games, Michael Phelps wore a jacket with a light-up panel on the back. This jacket appears to be like one of those butt-warming seats you can get in the front seat of your minivan. You flip a switch and there’s a heat-generating panel on the interior shell of the jacket—it’s not just a heating pad tucked into the lining of the coat, apparently. Ralph Lauren claims this will be the future of coats.
I think there was pressure here, especially when you’ve been making the Olympic uniform for so many years at this point, to show how fresh and innovative and new you are. But I would be truly surprised if we are all wearing heat-technology coats in two to four years and these hit the market in any kind of way.
Speaking of staying warm, each athlete will be wearing a navy bandana. Is the bandana wrapped around the neck really traditional cold-weather gear?
I think the warmth value really comes from the snugness around the neck. I think a bandana is plausible. The way in which it’s carefully folded to showcase this kind of faux Americana shield that they’ve devised strikes me as a little bit French. Ralph Lauren has frequently put our Olympic team in berets, to my great surprise and consternation. It’s a little bit like putting the Olympic team in an ascot. But again, the bandana isn’t a crucial design element here. It’s supposed to read with the sweater as a kind of background for the more bold elements of the outfit.
Given that the U.S. Olympic Committee has ignored your pleas to oust Ralph Lauren, are you going to take a different approach? Do you feel defeated?
I’m just one woman crying out in the wilderness, and I can only hope that change will one day come. We must persist in calling for revolution where warranted. But I do want to emphasize that dressing the athletes for the opening ceremony is an unusual fashion challenge, and that my position is not that Ralph Lauren is always terrible at it. It’s just that they’ve made some extremely bad choices over the years. They have a tendency to fall in love with European signifiers in a way that strikes me as unbecoming of the American team, and it’s time for them to take a break.
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