After some quality time in various photo archives, I’d like to make an observation about the history of the Olympic Games. And that is, fashion-wise, it can be divided into six separate eras.
The Athletic-Wear-Is-a-Work-in-Progress Era
The folderol about ancient Greece notwithstanding, the modern Olympics were launched in 1896. It took a couple of decades for the games to get into a groove and achieve any real degree of success as an international event. Among the many details they hadn’t quite nailed down in these early days: athletic wear. This is what passed for appropriate attire for a female gymnast circa 1908.
Which is in fact far lighter weight than the costume over in women’s archery. Note the hats.
The swimwear was howlingly bad; God help any bits that might be dangling from your body.
Performance wear as such just didn’t really exist.
And if you felt a little chilly, you apparently just threw on your usual overcoat.
The Fabled Golden Era of Olympics Fashion
Olympics fashion—like all fashion—starts to look properly modern around the time of the early 1920s. This is the classic Olympic look, the era “retro” Olympic ensembles will always strive to evoke. How many variations of this uniform, worn by the 1936 New Zealand team, did you spot Friday night?
Or this getup, sported by the Irish team in 1932.
See also the hats on the men of Team USA, 1960.
There is a clear line from Mildred Didrikson’s 1932 ensemble to modern-day track and field gear. Once you’ve got the basics of the tea kettle down, every further development is an incremental improvement.
Clearly there had evolved a purpose-built style of sports attire that met the needs of Olympians.
The Era of Midcentury Horrors
Olympic fashion had evolved into something fairly straightforward between the 1920s and the 1960s. Why not just keep doing what worked? Haha, my friend, never underestimate the power of the human desire for novelty to spawn stylistic horrors. Hence, as the late ‘60s approached, weird polyesters and harsh colors crept onto the scene. The hair got wilder; the knits got weirder. It’s pretty well summed up by this picture of Dorothy Hamill and her fellow winners at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.
And also this shot of runners at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada.
The Rocky IV Era
Yes, I know that Rocky IV doesn’t take place at the Olympics. Nevertheless, every photo of the Olympics from the 1980s looks like it takes place inside the Rocky IV universe, especially photos of Team USA.
The Windbreaker Suit Era
The single most defining aesthetic element of the Olympics of the 1990s, and the 1996 Atlanta games specifically, was the proliferation of windbreaker suits. If you didn’t have a windbreaker suit to wear at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, you weren’t shit and you could take yourself off to Columbus.
The Modern High-Def Era
Olympic fashion today is characterized by two things: The absolute best high-performance, high-tech fabric money can buy, and high definition photography and television. Everything is so bright it’ll sear your damn eyeballs off, and it looks great. Lay some more sparkles on me, Simone!