Fashion History Lesson: How Halston, Levi Strauss and Ralph Lauren Changed Olympic Uniforms

We took a look back at Team USA uniforms at the Olympic Games, and the designer partnerships that make them possible.
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We took a look back at Team USA uniforms at the Olympic Games, and the designer partnerships that make them possible.

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, 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)

Team USA, 1976 Summer Olympics. Photo: James Drake/Getty Images

Team USA, 1976 Summer Olympics. Photo: James Drake/Getty Images

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. [1] 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."

American retailer Montgomery Ward was in charge of physically producing the uniforms, and was also able to sell the full line of Olympian ensembles in its catalog (without the official insignia), providing Halston with a small percentage of the profits. [7] The media reported that Halston would be ditching brightly colored, overly patriotic apparel in favor of dark suits that would make Olympians look "just like businessmen." [1] Opening Ceremony uniforms for the winter games included simple dark navy jackets with hoods worn with plain loose trousers, while podium outfits looked like simple leisure suits with turtleneck tops. For the summer games, Halston created plain white, zip-front jackets, dark blue trousers and neck scarves for the tiniest bit of flare. Indeed, the brazen red, white and blue uniforms that traditionally symbolized America's vitality were replaced by Halston's darker, minimal look. [3] Halston, who was accustomed to dressing only fashionable women, called the task of creating uniforms a "major effort" that he didn’t anticipate due to the innate difficulty of dressing athletes of all ages and body types for every scenario they would encounter at the games. [7]

And not everyone was thrilled with the results. A letter sent to the sports editor of the New York Times called them a "disgrace to the team and affront to the nation," adding that they looked like "something out of a Life magazine year-end pictorial, vintage 1952." [4] Still, Halston enjoyed both publicity and some financial gain from the partnership, and would go on to design uniforms for Braniff flight attendants in 1977 as well as Girl Scout uniforms in 1978.

Levi Strauss & Co. (1980 and 1984 Olympic Games)

Team USA, 1980 Winter Olympics. Photo: Jerry Cooke/Getty Images

Team USA, 1980 Winter Olympics. Photo: Jerry Cooke/Getty Images

The liberated mood of the 1970s eventually faded as the U.S. entered the 1980s. People had been worn down by economic instability and were losing faith in the nation's structure, which led to a new conservatism characterized by the policies of President Ronald Reagan. As Americans longed for a more idealized version of their country's history, denim manufacturer Levi Strauss & Co., one of the most recognizable names in American culture, stepped up to provide uniforms for the U.S. Olympic team that evoked national pride by symbolizing the "Great Out West." (Also, it's probably not much of a coincidence that the American team wore this style of uniform in the same year that the country elected a president who became famous for playing cowboys in old Hollywood Westerns.)

Each U.S. athlete was sent to the 1980 winter games equipped with a 30-piece, $1,200 (retail value) uniform kit, complete with a white Western hat, rancher's shearling jacket, cowboy boots, plaid shirts, wool sweaters, jeans for men, bibbed denim skirts for women, along with a variety of other pieces. The media reported that the athletes were thrilled with their James Dean-like costumes, which were widely deemed the best Olympic outfits to date (sorry, Halston). But Levi's choice to donate these full wardrobes was based on more than patriotism; that year, the American manufacturing giant had a $12-million stake in the Olympic games, including $350,00 towards the U.S. Olympic Committee just for the privilege of advertising their company as "Outfitters to the U.S. Team." [6]

The U.S. boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics of 1980, supposedly leaving thousands of denim-loving Russians feeling forlorn. In addition to outfitting the U.S. team, Levi Strauss had planned to distribute 17,000 pairs of jeans and T-shirts to ticket takers, ushers and ground crews from Moscow, as well donating 6,000 Western jackets to Russians who would be working as Olympic chauffeurs. The New York Times reported that young people in the Soviet Union prized American jeans and were willing to pay exorbitant prices on the black market for them, making the promise of receiving free merch from Levis a heartbreaking thing to lose. [6] This news story also puts into perspective just how big of a deal it was to have Levi Strauss outfit the Olympic team during the pinnacle of the Cold War: it was the ultimate way to flaunt what other teams coveted, and what Americans wore with nonchalance.

The cowboy look would make another appearance during the 1984 winter games. However, in the spirit of American democracy, Levi Strauss put the designs for the 1984 summer Olympics in L.A. to a public vote. Out of "active," "classic," or "Western," Levi shoppers picked the "active" style option, leading to red, white and blue zip-front jackets with diagonal striping, elastic-waist sport pants, and baseball caps. [5] It was extremely casual, and exemplifies what we remember as the fitness craze of the 1980s.

Polo Ralph Lauren (2008 Olympic Games to Today)

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, a number of brands served as Olympic uniform licensees and providers, including J.C. Penney, Tommy Hilfiger, Adidas, Reebok and Polo Ralph Lauren. In 2008, Polo signed a contract with the USOC to become the "official outfitter of the U.S. Olympic team," replacing the Canadian apparel company Roots, which outfitted the U.S. team between 2002 and 2006. The New York-born fashion designer has since provided U.S. Olympians with a variety of ultra-patriotic and preppy uniforms that could have been plucked from the yachts, ski lodges, golf courses and Ivy League campuses one associates with the brand. Emma McClendon, who also curated the Museum at FIT's current "Uniformity" exhibition, points out that Ralph Lauren was a natural fit to represent the U.S. team since his brand heritage is rooted in Americana. Lauren had also established himself as a designer of athletic wear from diffusion lines like Polo Sport, which have provided a seamless opportunity for product integration.

Ralph Lauren's 2014 Winter Olympic Team USA uniforms. Photo: Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren's 2014 Winter Olympic Team USA uniforms. Photo: Ralph Lauren

However, according to the Wall Street Journal, the decision to have Ralph Lauren step up as the official uniform provider also had major political motives. The 2008 games in Beijing were seen as an opportunity for China to flaunt its status as a new global superpower, which led to the USOC being particularly choosy about uniforms to ensure that their athletes were not eclipsed. After declining a proposal for casual uniforms by its go-to brand Roots, the USOC enlisted Ralph Lauren to create more polished Olympic garb to evoke wealth and prestige.

Controversy surrounded the Polo partnership during the 2008 and 2012 games. From the start, people voiced their aversion to Lauren's Polo player logo being almost as huge as the Olympic ring logo. On top of that, the uniforms were made in China, but that controversy is actually nothing new: in 1992, WWD reported that there had been a domestic outcry over the fact that U.S. Olympic team uniforms produced by J.C. Penney had been outsourced to Asia. (Interestingly enough, the same article points out that Ralph Lauren also donated a large percentage of the Olympians' apparel that year, but their pieces were actually made in the U.S.) [2] Fortunately, Ralph Lauren made sure that Team USA's uniforms for the 2016 games in Rio were produced in the states.

Back when Halston designed Olympic get-ups in 1976, not many people were walking around in gym clothes. According to McClendon, Olympic uniforms in the 21st century have a greater impact on fashion due to the rising popularity of athleisure. Because of this, Team USA's ceremonial uniforms have become a bit more casual and sporty, while still adhering to traditional American styles. Naturally, we wouldn't mind if our Olympians traded their boat shoes for something similar to the stylish kicks that Christian Louboutin designed for Cuba's team this year, but we're still happy that our team is cowboy hat-free this time around.

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Sources not linked:

[1] Amdur, Neil. "Olympic Unit Hit Hard by Stock Drop." New York Times. October 15, 1974: 49.
[2] Black, Jeff. "Olympic Uniforms Not All U.S.-Made." Women's Wear Daily. January 17, 1992: 15.
[3] "Halston Designs Fashions for U.S. Athletes." Lawrence Journal-World. February 10, 1975: 6.
[4] Redfield, Adam. "Sports Editor's Mailbox." New York Times. August 15, 1976: 146.
[5] Rogers, Thomas. "Olympic Attire." New York Times. October 6, 1983: B12.
[6] Taylor, Angela. "U.S. Olympic Team Dresses Western." New York Times. February 8, 1980: A18.
[7] Weir, June. "Enterprising Halston." Women's Wear Daily. June 26, 1975: 4-5.

Main photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images