July 25, 2024

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Ralph Lauren’s Team USA uniforms are hit or miss

4 min read

Ralph Lauren, which has dressed Team USA for the past nine Olympics, unveiled its uniforms Tuesday morning. The collection should mark a biennial moment of simple patriotism but instead raises the question: What does it mean to dress sporty in America?

The label’s uniforms are preppy — but strangely aggressive where they should feel celebratory. The Opening Ceremonies ensemble is a blue blazer, with its lapels, cuffs and pockets tipped with red and white stripes, over a striped oxford shirt and jeans.

A news release called it “a distinctly modern take on a tailored look” and has even set up an atelier in Paris to ensure that the athletes’ clothes fit to their liking. But while the jeans have a nice relaxed fit and spiffy little crop, the outfit actually looks quite dated, too similar to the silhouettes — fitted jeans, even more fitted blazer — that filled J.Crew stores during its first menswear heyday, more than a decade ago. That the athletes will wear these clothes with white bucks, an almost bygone staple of American menswear, only emphasizes that association.

Prep has to wink to work in 2024, which is to say to keep it from looking like you’re serving ice cream at an overpriced hipster ice cream parlor on Nantucket, or the mayor in “Jaws.” You need some detail that shows you, the wearer, are in control of your slightly outrageous style: a funky tie, an unexpected shoe, a relaxed shoulder that makes your clothes feel a bit more casual, or a quirky fit, as in the case of the similarly striped and shrunken suits of Thom Browne.

We do have a winner, though. The Closing Ceremonies uniform is more fun: a moto-style jacket covered in patches and ra-ra words (“TEAM” on one epaulet in blue, “USA” on the other in red), which athletes will wear with white jeans and a polo shirt.

U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland said in the release that the designs “not only capture the essence of American style but also embody the spirit and pride of Team USA.”

Do they indeed capture the essence of American style? I’m not so sure.

Ralph Lauren’s great contribution to the history of fashion has been his innate and highly creative understanding that, in the United States, it is style, not fashion, that creates meaning through clothes. He managed to make a medium whose nature is to follow others into a celebration of individuality, taking notes from the various eccentricities of the American aristocracy, putting them through his playfully cinematic sieve and turning them into aspirational odysseys.

What Lauren hit upon is true: The best-dressed people in the history of America, whether Nan Kempner, Michelle Obama or Rihanna, have never bowed to any designer’s whim. They take (or took) ideas, whether from the runway or the mall or someone they passed on the street, and turn them into something personal and expressive. That attitude, more than any designer or look, defines what clothes mean in America, and what the idea of America represents. The uniforms appear too conservative, no matter the side of the political spectrum you land on.

The kit includes other standouts. For contrast, the athletes look great in the Villagewear assortment — a selection of clothes designed to wear between games — that Ralph Lauren also provided for the team’s athletes. There’s volleyball player Chiaka Ogbogu in a pair of relaxed white trousers and a cotton safari-ish jacket with a cinched waist, and paratriathlete Melissa Stockwell in a slightly cropped rugby shirt over a striped button-up and little white cotton shorts. There’s no better way to put it than to use a cliché: They are wearing the clothes, not the other way around.

To see an even clearer picture of American sprezzatura in action, look to the way professional and amateur athletes have completely rewritten the rule book of style in sports. Players in the NBA and WNBA have made their pregame clothes into a chance to build their own celebrity and the profile of their sport; many of them are better dressed than most other celebrities in film, TV or music. (Recent images of Skylar Diggins-Smith in a white button-up and black leather skirt are more instructive than anything a fashion magazine has recommended for looking spiffy but powerful.) Many brands, including Tory Burch and Norma Kamali, have made athletic clothes a key part of their output, knowing that those of us who don’t get paid to work out can still want to look like those who do.

With this year’s Olympics taking place in the city that is, at least in terms of luxury moneymaking, the world’s fashion capital, clothes are going to be much more central than they have been in Games past.

Maybe the issue is that patriotic clothes are too complicated a concept now — that when Americans feel so conflicted about the direction of their country, it is nearly impossible to put a flag on a shirt without upsetting somebody. (Regardless, the look is an improvement upon the even tighter blue blazers and jeans from the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics.) The first lady, for example, has recently adapted a uniform almost exclusively of blue, as if to position herself as a beacon of stability — and, pointedly, not one of red, white and blue, a show of bipartisanship or patriotism.

In that case, this year’s official Opening Ceremonies uniform is accidentally apropos: behind the times and struggling to define itself. It reminds us that American clothes are the least of our problems.


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