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    How Olympics Uniforms Have Changed Over The Past 12 Decades

    The gold-standard garments for gold medalists throughout the years.

    The Olympics may have had its athletes compete naked in the ancient days, but uniforms have become an important part of the Games throughout the years.

    Sports like track and field, and boxing have had uniforms that went relatively unchanged compared to archery and pretty much every event women have ever competed in. Doesn't tennis sound like the perfect sport for an ankle-length dress?

    1900 (Paris) — Just try describing spandex to this Olympic Committee.

    English tennis player Charlotte Sterry, née Cooper (1870 - 1966), 12th July 1912.
    Hulton Archive / Via Getty Images

    Women were not allowed to compete in the Olympics until 1900, and Hélène de Pourtalès made history as the first female Olympic champion. Unfortunately, there are no surviving photographs of Pourtalès Olympic uniform. 

    However, we do have the badass picture above, showing Charlotte Cooper (also known as Charlotte Cooper Sterry) at those same Olympic Games in 1900. While Pourtalès won as part of her sailing team, Cooper was the first individual female Olympic champion. I wonder why Nike hasn't brought back long-sleeve, ankle-length dresses?

    1904 (St. Louis, United States) — The old men of today owe a debt to turn-of-the-century golfers' fashion sense.

    George Seymour Lyon (1858-1938), Canadian golf champion.
    Bettmann / Contributor / Via Getty Images

    You may look at this picture and think that golf fashion has had plenty of Olympic Games to evolve, but it's actually only had four. That's right, golf has only officially appeared at four Olympic Games (1900, 1904, 2016, 2020)!

    Long before the visors, polos, skorts, and polyester blends, a day on the golf course was just like many other public outings. That typically meant dress shoes, knickers, and a flat cap. The man pictured above, George Lyon, is the winner of the 1904 Olympic gold medal for golf. He was one of three Canadians competing against 72 Americans, and he was the undefeated champ for over 100 years, until golf reappeared at the 2016 Olympics.

    1908 (London) — This was the first year we started to see standardized Olympic uniforms.

    Hulton Archive / Getty Images

    If the Olympic Committee is going to force you to wear ridiculously hot and long clothing that will undoubtedly affect your ability to perform to the best of your abilities, you might as well break a few records while you're at it. That's exactly what Sybil "Queenie" Fenton Newall did at the 1908 Olympics. Not only was she the last woman to win an archery medal for Great Britain for nearly 100 years, but she was also 53 years old at the time. Newall remains one of the oldest female gold medal Olympians of all time.

    1912 (Stockholm) — The Olympic swimsuit's style might not have changed that much in 100 years, but the fabric certainly did.

    Greta Johansson
    Ullstein Bild Dtl. / ullstein bild via Getty Images

    Few athletic uniforms are as directly tied to performance as the swimsuit. Here we can see Swedish diver Greta Johansson, who won the gold medal in the 10m platform. She's wearing the same swimsuit both men and women wore that year: loose one-piece suits over short black trunks. The uniforms were made of silk, and the one-piece design hasn't changed much since then. What has changed, however, is the fabric. Swimmers tried nylon, elastane, cotton, and synthetic materials. They also got tighter and smaller, helping the athletes cut down on their time. Nylon won out as one of the best fabrics, and remains the standard in Olympic swimsuits today. 

    1920 (Antwerp, Belgium) — The first real "uniforms" arrive.

    11/5/1920-Antwerp, Belgium- Picture shows a group of US Olympic Athletes posing together in their uniforms.
    Bettmann / Bettmann Archive / Via Getty Images

    World War 1 canceled the 1916 Olympics, but people were ready for the athletes' return by the start of the roaring '20s. In 1920, we finally start to see the uniforms that have become a core part of the Olympics' tradition. There will always be standout athletes, but each country having its own uniform gives the Games even more of a patriotic feeling. You're not just cheering for one person, you're rooting for your country!

    1924 (Paris) — Those British uniforms look awfully familiar...

    The women of the Great Britain team at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, Paris, 4th May 1924.
    Hulton Archive / Getty Images

    Okay, so maybe the patriotic uniforms took a little while to get started. It seems like the Great Brits might've noticed the American uniforms at the 1920 Olympics, and they didn't change too much. At this point, the "uniform" is simply formal wear for the opening ceremony. We won't see too much variation between countries until the idea becomes more widespread. But to be fair, the world had bigger things on their minds around this period (Germany was still being a bit moody, so they didn't get an invite).

    1928 (Amsterdam) — Track uniforms prove that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

    American athlete Betty Robinson wins the final of the women's 100 Metres event during the Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium, Amsterdam, 31st July 1928.
    Central Press / Getty Images

    Do you remember the Disney movie where the high school girl is running to catch up to her train, and the track coach on board invites her to join the boy's track team and she goes on to win Olympic gold? No? That's because, for whatever reason, they haven't made a movie about Betty Robinson yet. 

    Pictured above, Robinson won gold at Amsterdam in what was just her fourth official race ever at the age of 16. And she did it all wearing what most people wear to bed nowadays. There's no fancy gear or form-fitting fabrics; just a T-shirt and shorts. Track uniforms haven't changed much over the years, so no more excuses about not having the right clothes to work out in.

    1932 (Los Angeles) — Is that impending athleisure, I see?

    British athlete Tommy Hampson (1907-1965), and Canadian athlete Phil Edwards (1907-1971) on the podium after the final of the Men's 800 Metres event at the 1932 Summer Olympics, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles,
    Keystone / Getty Images

    There were still plenty of suits, ties, and long skirts at the 1932 Olympics, but we're finally starting to see more recognizable athletic clothing. Each country is clearly marked, but the unique designs are still about 30 years off. But don't you worry, 1984 Olympic uniforms are worth the wait (you're jumping ahead to 1984, aren't you).

    If you're wondering why it took so long for sportswear to become the tight, easy-breathing fabrics we know today, it's because sports were considered a leisure activity for a long time. If you had time to run around a track, clearly you had a pretty good life. But as more people (specifically women) entered athletics, special clothing that allowed a greater range of motion was needed.    

    1936 (Berlin) — Uniforms that look like they could've been on your high school track team.

    Berlin, Germany- Jesse Owens, is shown winning one of the 200-meter heats. L. Orr of Canada is second and K. Neckermann of Germany, third. Owens bettered the Olympic record with his time of 21.1. The former record of 21.2 was made by Eddie Tolan in 1932.
    Bettmann / Bettmann Archive / Via Getty Images

    Three years before the 1936 Olympics, Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany. But one athlete, in particular, overshadowed all that hate and, as journalist Larry Schwartz put it: "single-handedly crushed Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy." The greatest track and field athlete of his generation, Jesse Owens took less than one hour to set three world records and tie another. The singlet and shorts he wears are more recognizable than ever as track gear. Additionally, you can see more emphasis on aesthetics in the other countries' apparel.

    Oh yeah, and remember Betty Robinson from 1928? After nearly dying in a plane crash in 1931, it took her two years to walk again. With one leg shorter than the other, she competed on the 4×100-meter relay team at the 1936 Olympics. Won gold. No big deal.

    Fun Fact: This was the first Games to have an Olympic torch!

    1948 (London) — The post-war world started to care a lot more about fashion.

    U.S. Olympic Team Uniforms 1948
    Bettmann Archive / Via Getty Images

    The 1940 and 1944 Olympics were canceled for...reasons. Though, much like the 1920 Olympics that reunited the world after World War 1, the 1948 Summer Olympiad must have felt like an incredible luxury. Early 20th-century Olympic fashion closely resembled typical formal attire because sports were still considered a leisure activity. But post-World War 2, you know what sounds really freaking awesome? Leisure activities.

    The modern Olympic era — both in the opening/closing ceremonies and the sports themselves — oozes style, elegance, and a focus on the finer things in life. And by finer things, I'm not just talking fashion. The idea that sportswear itself could be an industry was emerging right around this time. The year after these Olympic Games, Life magazine reported that sportswear comprised 30% of its clothing sales that season, an all-time high.

    1952 (Helsinki, Finland) — What are we, back in 1920?

    Members of the British Olympic team leave Buckingham Palace in London after receiving the good luck wishes of Queen Elizabeth II for the Summer Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, 10th July 1952.
    Keystone / Getty Images

    Admittedly, there is something timeless about the blazer and skirt/pants combo. But where's the flavor? The patriotism? Although, to be fair, this British team does look decidedly British. Uniforms were certainly commonplace by 1952, and from here on out we'll see how the Olympic teams' uniforms become more of a spectacle than an afterthought.

    1956 (Melbourne, Australia & Stockholm) — Now we're talkin'!

    Soviet and American Players
    Archive Photos / Getty Images

    Not only do we finally see a bit more style in the uniforms, but in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, we start to see that camaraderie between athletic teams. In 2021, teammates Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee, and Grace McCallum all took to social media to support Simone Biles in her decision to withdraw from individual all-around competition and focus on her mental well-being. You need that kind of support and friendship in such a high-stakes setting, and the '50s planted the seed for that bond. Could it be tied to the first uniforms we see that are laid-back and stylish? 

    1960 (Rome) — The blazer strikes back.

    12th September 1960:  The 'Tennessee Tiger Belles', the American athletic team who collected three gold medals in the 1960 Olympic Games, arrive at London Airport from Rome for the Commonwealth versus USA athletics meeting at White City.
    Central Press / Getty Images

    Right when I thought we were done with the blazer/skirt combo, it returns. But to be fair, the '60s sensibilities of knee-length skirts and single-breasted blazers with narrow, notched lapels result in a much more chic look than in years prior. Here we see some of the Tennessee Tigerbelles (Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams, Wilma Rudolph, and Barbara Jones), Olympic track athletes from Texas Southern University. Namely among them was Wilma Rudolph (second from the right), who was the first woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games.

    1964 (Tokyo) — Hey look, color!

    Closeup of teams on the field during the Opening Ceremonies for the XVIII Olympiad.
    Bettmann / Bettmann Archive / Via Getty Images

    1964 feels like a real turning point for Olympics fashion. We still haven't stepped entirely out of your grandparents' wardrobe, but that world-unifying, patriotic spirit was clearly in the air. At its best, the Olympics is about shedding politics and petty skirmishes aside, instead focusing on the best athletes the world has to offer. I mean, from 1956 to1964, East and West Germany played as a single team. When the uniforms reflect the pride for your home and the Games represent the willingness to come together, you've got the ideal Olympiad.

    1968 [Winter Olympics] (Grenoble, France) — In the late '60s, fashionable sportswear made you look like a James Bond character.

    Peggy Fleming National champion and Olympic team figure skating member Peggy Fleming of Boulder Springs, Colo., wears her Olympic parade uniform during fitting session on
    Jacob Harris / Jacob Harris / AP/Shutterstock

    Taking a quick break from the Summer Olympics, let's see how the Winter Games have been doing. If you don't know who Peggy Fleming is, check out her flawless routine at the 1968 Figure Skating Championships. It is the same routine she performs at the Olympics, and it is breathtaking to watch. Like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, it's always a pleasure watching someone be simply the best at their sport. As one of the commentators mentions, you never get a feeling that she's out of control. So it's only fitting that her uniform is as immaculate as her routine. The crest on her chest is reminiscent of the 1920 blazers, but with loads more style surrounding it.

    1972 (Munich) — You can practically hear the National Anthem in this picture.

    American Team
    Bettmann / Bettmann Archive / Via Getty Images

    By the '50s, Olympics uniforms were widespread. By the '70s, nations were just starting to design their uniforms based on what makes each nation special. This would get really intense during the '80s, but in the 1972 Olympic opening ceremonies we see it beginning. With skirts shorter than ever and bold, definitively American colors, these uniforms couldn't be mistaken for anything other than American. Well, except the 17 other countries that have red-and-white flags, but still. America!

    1976 (Montréal) — Who let all these flight attendants on the field?

    Opening Ceremony: 1976 Summer Olympics: Team USA with flag bearer USA Gary Hall at Olympic Stadium. Montreal, Canada 7/17/1976
    James Drake / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

    Halston, a designer best known for sleek disco-era dresses, offered to design the American team's Olympic uniforms for free. During a financial crisis and after the Watergate scandal, the Olympic Committee gladly accepted Halston's offer, especially considering he was one of the first world-famous fashion designers. Looking like an assortment of politicians and flight attendants, these uniforms may not go down in history as the best of all time. However, they marked another turning point in Olympic fashion. The uniforms didn't just have to be functional or patriotic; they could be cool.

    1980 [Winter Olympics] (Lake Placid, United States) — The Miracle on Ice was 50% athletics, 50% style.

    LAKE PLACID, NY - FEBUARY 1980: Team USA's Steve Christoff #11 stands his groud against Zinetula Bilyaletdinov #14 of the Soviet Union during the XIII Olympic Winter Games in February of 1980 in Lake Placid, New York.
    Focus On Sport / Focus on Sport via Getty Images

    The US and 66 other countries boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics that were held in Moscow, so let's instead focus on the Winter Olympics of that same year. The fashion designer Halston designed the uniforms for the 1976 Olympic Games, and Levi Strauss & Co. stepped in for the 1980 and 1984 Winter Games. 

    We'll see the iconic uniforms Levi provided in the following Games, but we can't talk about 1980 without mentioning the Miracle on Ice. A true David and Goliath story, to say that the Soviets were favored to win the hockey tournament was a massive understatement. They had won the previous four gold medals, and the American team was the youngest in the tournament. Not only that, but the US players were the youngest in national team history. But in the end, they managed to pull off a win, and their vibrant uniforms added to what felt like so much more than just a game.

    1984 [Winter Olympics] (Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Yugoslavia) — We're far away from thick trousers and ankle-length skirts.

    American Olympic athletes wave the cowboy hats that are part of their official Olympic uniforms on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 1984 as they march in Kosevo Stadium during opening ceremonies of the XIV Winter Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
    Anonymous / AP

    Widely considered to be the greatest Olympic uniforms of all time, Levi & Strauss designed clothing for the opening ceremony that wasn't just American in its color scheme. With newly elected Ronald Regan in office (who famously played cowboys in movies), these uniforms tapped into the new wave of American conservatism that was sweeping the nation. The athletes were reportedly extremely happy with the uniforms, and it's easy to see why. I mean, how much more American can you get?

    1988 [Winter Olympics] (Calgary, Alberta, Canada) — It's bobsled time!

    1988 Winter Olympics: Jamaica Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, Michael White and Nelson Stokes (23) in action during four-man event at at Canada Olympic Park. Calgary, Canada 2/28/1988
    Jerry Cooke / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

    I know we're sticking with the Winter Olympics for a few years in a row, but what a decade it was for the snowy Games. The Miracle on Ice in 1980, iconic uniforms in 1984, and the first-ever Jamaican bobsled team in 1988 (Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, Michael White, and Nelson Stokes). If the above picture didn't immediately make you think of Cool Runnings, please stop reading, watch the film, and come back. 

    While the 1993 movie has the incredibly moving scene of the team carrying their bobsled across the finish line after crashing, the real team did not do so (but they did walk across it). Still, the movie pays tribute to the courage and perseverance these underdogs showed. Also unlike the movie, the real Jamaican bobsled team was (thankfully) welcomed into the Olympics by the other nations. As team member Devon Harris has said, "Athletes generally don’t treat each other that way."

    The team's uniforms — a bright green and yellow against the ice and sky — stand out just about as much as four Jamaicans in a bobsled did at the time. While many people assume that Cool Runnings' historical inaccuracies make it a poor film, everyone involved was forthcoming about where they stretched the truth. The real Jamaican bobsled team is a big fan of the movie, just like I'm a big fan of their uniforms.

    1992 (Barcelona) — Honestly? I'd buy these.

    The 1992 Dream Team
    Picture Alliance / picture alliance via Getty Images

    Before 1992, the only countries that could use professional players in Olympic basketball were Europe and South America. But in 1992, that all changed. Enter  The Dream Team, consisting of all-stars like Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, and Michael Jordan. The uniforms we see here feel like a combination of those worn by the hockey players in 1980 and the track medalists in 1932. After the symbolism of the American cowboys that Levi Strauss brought to the '80 and '84 Olympics, these uniforms bring America back to feeling like a brand more than an idea. I don't mean that in a bad way, because these are some of the coolest uniforms we've seen yet.

    1996 (Atlanta) — What about some love for the torch-bearer?

    19 Jul 1996:  Muhammad Ali holds the torch before lighting the Olympic Flame during the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
    Michael Cooper / Getty Images

    Muhammad Ali actually competed in the 1960 Olympics, and in 1996 he received a replacement medal for his victory (after his torch duties, of course). We haven't paid any attention to the torch-bearers’ uniforms in this list, but they are just as important and emblematic of the Games as the athletes’ clothes. Wearing what feels like a 2021 Frank Ocean fit, Muhammad's all-white outfit and towering stature kicked off an excellent Games in Atlanta. 

    Side Note: As far as Olympic torches go, this is one of my favorites. What's that? You don't know every single Olympic torch?! No worries, I got you.

    2000 (Sydney) — If only Charlotte Cooper could see this.

    Cathy Freeman of Australia crosses the line to win gold in the Womens 400m Final at the Olympic Stadium on Day 10 of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
    Mike Powell / Getty Images

    Getting back into the athletes' attire, let's take a look at Cathy Freeman. Here, she wears a full-bodied suit that remains a powerful image compared to the women in sports bras and briefs alongside her. "Aerodynamics" seems like a common thing to talk about in racing sports nowadays, but it wasn't part of the Olympic debate in 2000. Because of that, some people thought Cathy Freeman looked downright ridiculous. But she and bodysuit designer Edward Harber knew they were onto something. By reducing drag, Harber may have helped Freeman win gold. Of course, being a world-class athlete doesn't hurt, either. 

    Cathy Freeman was the second Australian Aboriginal Olympic champion. When she won, she ran a victory lap carrying the Australian and Aboriginal flags.

    2004 (Athens) — They may be holding gold, but their suits are a little...bronze.

    Katie Smith, Diana Taurasi, Tina Thompson, Tamika Catchings, Yolanda Griffiths  Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley Shannon Johnson Sheryl Swoopes, Sue Bird, Ruth Riley and Swin Cash of USA hold their gold medals on August 28, 2004 Summer Olympic Games
    Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

    Just like a lot of things in American culture, we got our most flamboyant and gaudy in the '80s. After Levi Strauss's cowboy hats and jackets, we had the Dream Team's bright American flag jackets. But in 2004, the uniforms were going back to function over form. Sure, these are good-looking tracksuits that clearly represent the United States. They don't do much, though.

    2008 (Beijing) — So what does the fastest man in the world wear?

    Usain Bolt of Jamaica reacts as he wins the Olympic mens 200m final in a new world record time in the Birds Nest stadium, Beijing on August 20th 2008 in Beijing, China
    Tom Jenkins / Getty Images

    While Cathy Freeman did open the door for more bodysuits in track, the same uniform worn by Jesse Owens in 1936 remains the most popular. This preserves the integrity of the sport, giving every runner the same opportunity when they push off their starting blocks. While the rules aren't as strict as swimming, runners usually wear uniforms like Usain Bolt sported in 2008. A simple singlet and shorts, what more do you need? The style may be similar to track uniforms in the '30s, but the fabric is of course much more breathable and moisture-resistant.

    On the American side of things, Polo Ralph Lauren started designing the American uniforms in 2008. They have remained the designer, though many have called for a replacement after some controversy in 2021.

    2012 (London) — The 2010s saw the rise of abstract designs in Olympic uniforms.

    Triple jumper Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Heptathlon athlete Jessica Ennis on stage at the official British team kit launch for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games,  at the Tower of London on March 22, 2012 in London, England.
    Richard Heathcote / Getty Images for adidas

    I've mentioned Halston, Levi Strauss, and Ralph Lauren, but we don't always get to see the designer posing with their work. Here, we see British creative designer Stella McCartney with two Olympic athletes wearing her uniforms. McCartney's work was praised as being "confidently patriotic," and it brings back the flair that was lacking from the American uniforms of the early 2000s. Leave it to the daughter of Paul McCartney to create something wonderfully British.

    In other 2012 Olympic news, non-textile swimsuits were banned from the Games. If you're not sure what these suits are, they look a bit like wetsuits with the arms ripped off. The non-textile suits were all the rage at the Beijing Olympics, as they could reduce your time by 2–4%. By 2009, more than 130 world records had been broken by swimmers wearing the new swimwear. When the International Swimming Federation realized the suits were actually increasing the swimmers' buoyancy, they were banned from official events. Just like with runners, the sport should be about the athlete, not their gear.

    2016 (Rio de Janeiro) - Sometimes people pay a little too much attention to the uniforms.

    Germany's Laura Ludwig (R) watches as Egypt's Doaa Elghobashy reacts during the women's beach volleyball qualifying match between Germany and Egypt at the Beach Volley Arena in Rio de Janeiro on August 7, 2016, for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
    Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP via Getty Images

    Golf's back! If you need reminding, golf has been absent from the Olympics since 1904. While golf uniforms have changed a bit in the last 100 years, the picture above sparked a big conversation about Olympic attire. Many claimed that the differences between the uniforms of  Doaa Elghobashy (left) and Laura Ludwig (right) were symbolic of a "culture clash." Like many people who can't look past what a woman wears, they missed some key points. The two most important things to note about this match were that it was Egypt's introduction to Olympic beach volleyball, and that the players (Nada Meawad and Doaa Elghobashy) were the youngest in the Olympic sport's history at 18 and 19 years old.

    The different uniforms highlight that, unlike swimming, some sportswear is up to player preference rather than solely performance. Whether a bikini or a hijab is better for beach volleyball really just depends on which you'd rather wear. As Elghobashy said after the match: "I have worn the hijab for 10 years. It doesn’t keep me away from the things I love to do, and beach volleyball is one of them."

    2020/2021 (Tokyo) — This is the outfit that led many to ask for Ralph Lauren to be replaced as the American team's designer.

    Which Olympic outfit did you love the most? Let us know below in the comments!