Welcome to Fashion History Lesson, in which we dive deep into the origin and evolution of the fashion industry’s most influential and omnipresent businesses, icons, trends and more.
At the first modern Olympic games in 1896, athletes wore their own clothes or private athletic club uniforms. For this year’s games in Rio, as has become the norm, athletes have been outfitted in brand-sponsored duds by the likes of Stella McCartney (Great Britain), Lacoste (France), H&M (Sweden), Giorgio Armani (Italy), DSquared2 (Canada), Christian Louboutin (Cuba), and Mr. Americana himself, Ralph Lauren.
Although Team USA has worn Olympic garb supplied by a variety of designers and brands over the years, Roy Halston, Levi Strauss and Ralph Lauren are perhaps the three “official outfitters” that best exemplify why these Olympic partnerships take place. Each of them imbued elements of national identity into their uniforms, projecting idealized American aesthetics intended to make an impact on the world stage at crucial moments in the nation’s history.
Okay, fine. We’ll admit it: we typically don’t think too seriously about politics and economics when judging the aesthetic qualities of Olympic uniforms, but they actually start to make a whole lot more sense when you do. Read on to find out the true meaning behind Team USA’s preppy blazers, cowboy hats, and all of the Olympic attire in between.
HALSTON (1976 OLYMPIC GAMES)
Roy Halston, best known for his disco-era sleek jersey dresses, designed Team USA’s uniforms for both the summer and winter Olympics in 1976 (both games were held in the same year until 1992). In 1974, it was reported that he would be providing “free” designing services to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) while the organization tried to recover from a financial slump.  The nation itself was experiencing a financial crisis, as well as recovering from the embarrassment of the Watergate scandal and the demoralizing effects of the Vietnam War. However, there was a huge amount of cultural capital coming out of New York during this time. People around the world had become aware of the glamorous crowds that frequented Studio 54, and perhaps no one better embodied this chic lifestyle than Halston himself. According to Emma McClendon, co-curator of the Museum at FIT’s “Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s” exhibition, “Halston was the first celebrity American designer,” as well as “one of the most visible designers on the global stage.”