On Wednesday, Ralph Lauren released the first images of its 2021 U.S. Olympic team uniforms. The outfits, which the athletes will wear at the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Games, include white jeans, white polo shirts, and white windbreakers—the perfect canvas for an embarrassing, all-American dribble of barbecue sauce on a hot summer’s day.
Ralph Lauren has been making Team USA’s opening and closing ceremony uniforms since 2008. Usually, the outfits make news for their more flamboyant elements. The company has made ugly sweatersTM for multiple Winter Olympics, most notably a shawl-collared cardigan in 2014. There have been berets, newsboy caps, and striped shirts that echoed the Russian flag. But mostly, the uniforms have followed a predictable pattern: cozy chalet wear for winter, preppy dockside garb for summer. The assignment has always been Americana, and Ralph Lauren’s interpretation has always been aggressively WASPy. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail; when you’re a Ralph Lauren designer, one imagines, every human body looks like it needs a polo shirt.
Though this year’s uniform does make the athlete-models look like they’re about to vote for Obama a third time or call the cops on an unpermitted lemonade stand, compared with Ralph Lauren’s previous entries in the category, the 2021 garb is rather boring. The white denim is plain. The windbreakers look cheap, and their cinched waists, which are usually reserved for the “ladies” cut of outerwear, will make even the country’s most muscular bodies look frumpy. The D-ring belts (the D stands for douchebag) are self-plagiarized from the ones that accompanied the uniform in 2016.
I can’t fully blame Ralph Lauren for its wearisome repetition of yuppie stereotypes. Trend-agnostic polo shirts, button-downs, and tailored denim are what the company knows best, and it’s surely what the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee expects when they hire the brand for this project. That committee is the real villain here, because it’s long past time to give a different, more visionary designer a turn. (Marc Jacobs knows how to make punchy track jackets, and Telfar has a history of just-avant-garde-enough pants.) But also, couldn’t Ralph Lauren have devoted a little more creative energy to a contract as lucrative and visible as this one, rather than handing in a slightly more patriotic copy of the clothes it already makes for its everyday consumers? The one-year delay the pandemic imposed on the Olympics even gave the company an extra year to figure out something bolder. Yeah, yeah, we were all supposed to give ourselves a break on productivity expectations during the crisis, but these designers could have spent a little less time on their sourdough loaves and a little more time thinking beyond the popped collar.
Still, if we grade this year’s kit on a curve, it’s a slight improvement over the 2016 garb. The last Summer Olympics found athletes clad in white shorts, button-down shirts embroidered with oversize Polo Ralph Lauren logos, and honest-to-God red-white-and-blue boat shoes. There were also navy-blue blazers with gold buttons, the official uniform of budding alcoholics who only got into college because their parents donated a new dorm building.
This year’s Polo ponies are a humbler size, which focuses a bit more attention on the athlete and the country rather than the company that made the clothes. The windbreaker makes the outfit appropriately sportier, more suitable for an après-workout dinner—though nothing too gloopy, because of the all-white thing—than a luncheon on a yacht. These are all good things. And, in all fairness, it would be no easy task to create a red-white-and-blue uniform that doesn’t look gaudily patriotic.
Gaudy patriotism is the No. 1 deliverable on the spec sheet. Let’s not forget the fringed suede gauntlet gloves of 2018, which, criticized for wiggling up to the edge of cultural appropriation, got to the central dilemma of designing a uniform for a diverse set of athletes who represent one of the most culturally diverse nations on Earth. The surest way for an Olympic fashion designer to be fully protected against accusations of cultural appropriation is to confine her inspiration to the gated boundaries of the whitest space in the nation: the country club. If there’s one thing the uniform’s supporters and detractors can agree on, it’s that the 2021 closing ceremony outfits have not drawn from any American culture other than the white one.
Whether that’s a compliment (nothing offensive here!) or a condemnation depends on your outlook, I guess. But certainly, at the height of athleisure’s supremacy among the general public and a growing interest in the boundary-pushing possibilities of high fashion among elite athletes, we could have done better than a polo shirt, classic-fit jeans, and a windbreaker whose corporate logo shares equal footing with the U.S. flag. As long as we’re counting on the outfitter of America’s aging golf dads to clothe the most capable bodies of our nation, we won’t.