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Shining fashion moments in the Olympics

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 07, 2021 6:00 am

Fashion has always been a curiosity at the International Olympics ever since its debut in 1896.

During its beginnings, modesty was paramount, so even swimsuits for men covered the chest and women, when they participated for the first time in 1900, had to wear ankle-length skirts, just like tennis player Helen Provost of France, who wore it with long sleeves, a covered neck and shoes with a heel, typical of the Belle Epoque fashion of the time.

When women joined the swimming competition for the first time in 1912, they wore full-body silk suits complemented by bra and bikini-style briefs. Female coaches were rare and there were even chaperones to protect women from harassment.

Teófilo Yldefonso, the first Filipino and Southeast Asian to win an Olympic medal (bronze for swimming in both the 1928 and 1932 Olympics), wore a one-piece swimsuit covering the body from hips to shoulders. Men were allowed to wear bare-chest suits only in 1936 and briefs only in 1948. Women were finally allowed to show their legs in streamlined swimsuits in 1928.

Nylon in 1956 and elastane in the 1970s improved the swimsuit’s elasticity and water drag, resulting in the breaking of 21 out of 22 world records in 1972.  With everyone shaving body hair for less drag, Mark Spitz made a fashion statement by keeping his moustache. He nevertheless set a record of seven gold medals won in a single Olympics.

With increased commercialization, the Olympics became a venue for designers and brands to showcase their work. 

The East Germans, on the other hand, made waves with “skinsuits” in cotton, which were virtually transparent when wet, causing outrage among the US swimmers. When East German women won 10 out of 14 events at the 1973 World Aquatic Championships, the world finally adopted the skinsuit, albeit in less revealing synthetic materials.

In 2000, Speedo’s Fastskin, which covered the body from neck to ankles and wrists, helped win 83 percent of the medals, including the three golds and one silver of Australian champion Ian Thorpe. 

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A post shared by Ian Thorpe (@ian.thorpe)

Further tech innovations produced the LZR Racer in 2008, holding the body in a more hydrodynamic position with better flexibility and increased oxygen flow to the muscles.

The Racer’s life was short-lived, however, when FINA, the international swimming federation, banned it since it amounted to “technical doping” and went contrary to the core principle that “swimming is a sport based on the physical performance of the athlete.”

With increased commercialization, the Olympics became a venue for designers and brands to showcase their work. 

For figure skating, costumes evolved from heavy pieces for maximum coverage to skimpy, glittery outfits embellished with crystals.  France’s Surya Bonali wore Christian Lacroix in 1992 to bedazzle in a matador top.

USA’s Nancy Kerrigan, who had just recovered from an assault that temporarily incapacitated her, was studded with rhinestones as imagined by Vera Wang in 1994.  She won silver while her teammate, Tonya Harding, who was a suspected accomplice in the attack, placed eighth and was banned from the sport for life after pleading guilty in 1994.

Men also had their turn to shine. US sprinter Michael Johnson did so in custom Nike gold metallic racing spikes that earned him the title “The Man with the Golden Shoes.” aside from “The World’s Fastest Man” for breaking records and winning both the 200m and 400m in 1996. For the next Olympics he upped the ante by having 24k gold woven into his shoes.

Designer outfits for the opening ceremonies also attract a lot of attention. Team Japan got their fair share with rainbow capes in 2000 and floral ensembles in 2004, courtesy of Kenzo Takada.  Some go patriotic, sticking to national costumes like India’s saris and kurtas and the Philippines’ Barong Tagalog. 

For the 2012 London Olympics, Rajo Laurel did his take on the barong with palay embroidery matched with golden salakots for good fortune. 

Hidilyn Diaz, silver medal winner for weightlifting, was the flagbearer for Team Philippines at the opening. She will be going to the Olympics again this year, together with other gold hopefuls like Carlos Yulo for gymnastics, Ernest Obiena for pole vault, Eumir Marcial and Irish Magno for boxing, and Yuka Saso for golf. 

With many other high-profile designers involved in the London Olympics, the event came to be called “The Fashion Games.” Stella McCartney did Great Britain’s Olympic kit, a contemporary take on the Union Jack. 

Cedella Marley, another daughter of a musical icon, used the Jamaican flag colors for a set with Caribbean flair.

Hermès returned to its roots by dressing the French equestrian team in a blazer of technical fabric for maximum freedom of movement.

Armani’s gear for Italy had a subtle hint of patriotism, with the words of their national anthem stitched into the linings.

Ralph Lauren’s design for Team USA, however, was patriotically controversial since he topped the outfits with berets and manufactured them in China.

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A post shared by Ralph Lauren (@ralphlauren)

For this year’s Olympics in Tokyo, the American designer went preppy as always, but more subdued with jeans, polos and windbreakers in white.

Great Britain commissioned Ben Sherman with its ’60s heritage-inspired designs and a discreet patriotic roaring “Lion” emblem in the lining.

Armani is less subtle this time, employing the colors of the Italian flag for the rising sun featured in the navy uniforms. 

Hudson’s Bay went for the “Canadian tux” denim jacket with spray-paint graffiti.

The Russians, sanctioned for their failure to turn over accurate drug-testing data, are forbidden from depicting any symbols of the country and cannot even compete as “Russia” but rather as “Russian Olympic Committee.” They can only rely on their flag’s colors to identify them through their uniforms. It’s not an issue, however, for climbing Russian athlete Yulia Kaplina, who said, “I remain an athlete from Russia. Of course it’s a shame that we don’t have our national flag or emblem on the uniforms, but they’re in my heart.”

Banner photo: Reuters /Murad Sezer