While fashion isn’t front and center at the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio (how can it be with superstars like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps stealing the headlines?), the Opening Ceremony uniforms continue to receive more and more public attention. Some of the world’s leading fashion designers have flaunted their national pride by designing their country’s team uniforms, including Ralph Lauren, who has designed Team USA’s Opening Ceremony getups since 2008.
Fashion is often a reflection of the prevailing cultural trends and societal climate of a nation and the design of Team USA’s Opening Ceremony uniforms often receive the same treatment.
At this year’s Parade of Nations, the Americans sported navy blazers adorned with gold buttons atop red and white striped shirts, white jeans and navy belts. The look showcased classic sporty-preppy style and was inspired by the warm and breezy personality of this year’s host city. Complete with matching boat shoes, the uniforms recalled visions of 1960s Copacabana beach. Team USA flag bearer Michael Phelps, wore an innovative jacket with electroluminescent panels that produced a glimmering USA typeface. Phelps’ jacket perfectly exemplifies the encroaching nature of technology in everyday life.
During the 1980s, the urbanization of Texas and popularity of Western movies led to a revival of “cowboy culture.” As a result, Team USA began the 1984 games decked out in cowboy hats and Western-inspired uniforms. In 2004, as the concept of cool evolved in the new millennia, the poor-boy hats worn by the athletes marked the emergence of the hipster subculture.
In other instances, the uniforms functioned as political statements. In 2008, the Beijing games were framed as the world’s introduction to the ‘new’ China. To ensure Team USA athletes were not overshadowed, Ralph Lauren designed uniforms that dressed the athletes to the nines, safeguarding the country’s status as global elites. In the first Olympics since the 9/11 attacks, Team USA unexpectedly donned navy berets during the 2002 Salt Lake City Opening Ceremony. The berets, designed by Roots, immediately became a symbol of patriotism and sold out instantly.
Click through the timeline below to see how the Opening Ceremony uniforms have evolved over the years and reflected the culture of that time.