The worst Olympic uniform

Posted by Rob Walker on February 23, 2010
Posted Under: The Designed Life

I can’t claim to be thoroughly versed in the Olympics, but having weighed in on what I think is the most compelling uniform development of the games, I may as well say this. From what I’ve seen, the absolute worst and dumbest uniform, hands down, is this:

This is what members of the U.S. snowboarding team — men and women — are wearing. Back in December ESPN dubbed this lame grunge getup an “(anti) uniform.” Riiiiight. Super-“anti.” It’s as transgressive, subversive, threatening, and spectacular as, um, stuff half the kids at the mall have been wearing for ten years, and that nobody really notices anymore.

The mission statement for this supposedly radical outfit comes from the “vice president of creative” at snowboarding megabrand Burton:

The inspiration behind the U.S. Snowboarding Team outerwear for the 2010 Olympics is classic Americana, Although we are creating a uniform, our first objective is to express the individuality of snowboarding.  As such, we are taking vintage American looks and interpreting them in a very unique and unexpected fashion. Finally, we will ensure that all of the highest technical attributes are maintained in the pieces, so that performance and function are not jeopardized.  The result will be a progressive and fresh look that challenges the former conservatism of the Olympics.

Oh really? A challenge to conservatism? Via”classic Americana”? Yes, nothing challenges conservatism like classic-ness. I look forward to the overthrow of reactionary footwear by way of penny loafers. Burton penny loafers.

Anyway, I could go on about this at some length, but I’ll  restrict myself to a couple of points. First, note that the hood is completely superfluous, and in fact probably counterfunctional. Far from bucking the dictates of socially derived aesthetics, it imposes a completely unneeded design element for the sole purpose of signaling. It about as “progressive” as having speed skaters wear bow ties. If there’s a more pure example of conformity trumping practicality, I can’t think of it.

Oh, wait, sure I can: Phony-holed jeans. For years the hollow claims of every marketing guru who insists that consumers “demand authenticity” has been neatly debunked by the success of the high-end “distressed” denim phenomenon. Buying jeans whose wear-and-tear is implemented by far-flung factory workers and machinery, according to specific standards devised and overseen by layers of corporate design-management — and in fact paying extra for such jeans, and pretending that this somehow signals rebel style — is a capitulation to simulacra-culture so Xtreme it would make Debord giggle and Baudrillard weep. Or vice versa. Whatevs.

The point is that characterizing these monotonous garments as “a uniform” is an essentially redundant act. Nothing here “expresses the individuality” of the wearer. That rather simple assignment could be fulfilled by simply letting the individuals wear whatever they wanted to! Instead, what is being “expressed” is the market research and trend forecasting of a large retail brand.

All of which just makes me appreciate those Norwegian curlers even more. They didn’t commission some company to cook their look. They just found some insane pants on an online golfer store, and assembled their own Olympic uniforms with a few clicks. No “vice president of creative” required.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Dude. I’ve spent more time reading your Olympics fashion analysis than I have watching the Olympics.

Written By Peter Kafka on February 23rd, 2010 @ 11:39 pm

Denim is a fabric, and people do various things to it. And that’s OK.

I think pretty much everyone has understood for decades that the various denim treatments represent design concepts rather than actual wear and tear. Remember stone washing in the ’80s?

It’s pointless to judge people for what type of jeans they choose to buy, whether they have a distressed or super-dark-dyed new look. It’s all fashion. It’s all good.

However, I agree that the uniform sucks.

Written By Maximus on February 24th, 2010 @ 1:24 am

LOL. As if that weren’t enough, there is another dimension to this story, and that’s the minor controversy in the professional snowboarding community over the use of speed suits. Since you’re trying to go as fast as possible, the practical thing to do is to lessen wind resistance, and baggy outfits slow you down. Professional downhill skiiers use speed suits for this reason, but for some reason, conformity to the traditional gear is enforced by mocking and ostracizing snowboarders who dare to challenge the norm.

It’s obvious that the snowboarding community is deeply concerned about maintaining it’s carefully cultivated outsider image. A speed suit would signal the truth: snowboarding has been completely absorbed into the mainstream sporting establishment, but this fact must be suppressed because a big part of the sport’s appeal (and advertising and sponsorship dollars) depends on the appearance of nonconformity.

Written By Mike on February 24th, 2010 @ 1:31 am

i dig those shitty uniforms.

who cares if the VP of C can’t write a brief. He’s a boarder- he isn’t supposed to!

Written By felix sockwell on February 24th, 2010 @ 9:46 am

The real head-scratcher is that that’s not even actually denim. It’s GORE-TEX done up to look like distressed denim. I don’t know that even Baudrillard came up with a word for what it is when you’re simulating simulacra.

Written By Dan on February 24th, 2010 @ 11:19 am

Wouldn’t consumers buying phony-holed jeans actually *show* a demand for “authenticity” even if those jeans are the opposite of “authentic”? When choosing between different pairs of jeans, consumers are going for the ones that look worn-in, as if they had been working on a motorcycle or chopping wood or performing some other authentic-sounding activity.

Maybe customers who buy such things have little idea of what it means to be authentic (though, really, who can actually define authenticity?), but that doesn’t mean they don’t buy things purporting to have that quality.
Consumers who want to cultivate a self-image of authenticity are drawn to clothes that look the part. Even if you didn’t rip those jeans yourself, as far as everyone else is concerned, seeing is believing.

The difference is that consumers do demand authenticity, It’s just that they are not very good at judging it.

Written By grimp on February 24th, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

Excellent appraisal, RW. Best thing I’ve read all day.

Written By Sara on February 24th, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

I agree with everything you say here. But I still love these crazy uniforms!

Written By Dennis on February 24th, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

Good critique. As I watched the team, I also had to wonder why someone doesn’t sidestep the entire skateboard look and simply wear gear that is about flexibility, aerodynamics, and cold weather comfort, and make an elevated “brand” statement that is about team and USA and cleverness, competency and leadership. And yes, I expect a speed suit might actually deliver better results, as well. Thanks.

Written By Jim on February 24th, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

Trying your hardest to look cool* = not cool. Wearing goofy golfing clothes to play (the somewhat) goofy sport of curling and looking as if you couldn’t care less = damn cool. God bless Norway.

*Not that these clothes (US snowboarders) actually are cool. Wearing uncool clothes and thinking you are cool = double uncoolness. Except perhaps in the southern hemisphere where everything is back-to-front. But not exactly.

Written By Andy on February 24th, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

Really? You picked this as the worst? Sure the jeans are lame, but I liked the plaid jackets.

These were WAY better than the blue pajamas with stars that Hannah Kearney wore when she won the gold in moguls.

Written By Bob Weber on February 24th, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

The uniform looks stupid photographed by itself, but I have to say, it looked sharp on the US boarders when they were wearing them on the slope, especially compaired to everyone else’s uniforms. Partly that’s because the US uniforms were fitted better and tighter on the body; everyone else looked a bit Michelin Man-7. But the US uniforms also stood out because they were using a subdued color palette in contrast to the bright colors everyone else was wearing. I think dull colors look better against white snow than strong ones; the contrast gives me a headache.

I understand what you & everyone else is saying: it’s stupid to make something look like something it isn’t (in this case, brand-new Goretex to look like old denim). But the uniform should be considered in the context of snowboarding’s origins, which borrows a bit from skiing, but much more from skateboarding. So why can’t a snowboarding uniform stay within the skateboarding aesthetic? In fact, I’d argue that such a uniform would be more authentic. Snowboarding is still a very young sport, and its outfits should be allowed to evolve in their own direction, rather than mimic previous snow sports.

About the phoniness of designer jeans in general: You’re treating jeans solely as a practical item of clothing, but jeans haven’t been that for decades. They’re a fashion product. And what fashion designers do is to take an element and change or exaggerate it. Jeans designers have done the same thing with jeans features (wear patterns, rips, color fading) that, say, dress designers might do with a ruffle or brocade. The genius of American fashion has always been its ability to turn informal clothes into formal wear.

Yeah, the Burton exec’s comments are stupid, but really, when does any marketer ever say anything true about their product? Doesn’t everyone try to latch their product onto some ineffable and unconnected idea or feeling?

Written By Brian on February 24th, 2010 @ 7:51 pm

Umm, meant Michelin Man-y, not Man-7.

Written By Brian on February 24th, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

Fit, quality and an awareness of history and context trumps stupid ‘fashion’ anyday. Now that’s real style.

Written By Dave9 on February 24th, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

Ok, I am going to venture to guess that you have not ever been snowboarding before. Am I right? Or am I right? First off, the hood actually looks to me very well designed and functional. Skiers and snowboarders do wear a hood, even over their helmet, if there are high winds or it’s extremely cold. And while I agree that buying pre-faded jeans is extremely stupid, you have to admit these look pretty decent. I’ve seen other “denim” snow pants, and they look like plastic. But these look pretty authentic to the mass-produced jeans that lack authenticity. As a “unique” uniform, I would certainly say these suffice.

Written By Matt on February 24th, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

Prepare for confrontational mode!

To anyone who say the baggy clothing is less efficient than a speed suit a simple test; Beat Shaun White. The guy moves faster and higher than anyone else while wearing his baggy pants.

Either they make enough of a difference for someone to slap on the spandex and overtake the current champ or… they don’t.

To quote the philosopher Ric Flair – “To be The Man, you have to beat The Man”.

Written By Blaine on February 25th, 2010 @ 12:17 am

#13 must be a journalism major, compelled to edit blogs…so, it’s a typo…you got the message…who cares?

Written By kay on February 25th, 2010 @ 8:31 am

Kay, I think he’s correcting a typo in his own comment.

Thanks for all the feedback, everybody.

Written By Rob Walker on February 25th, 2010 @ 11:14 am

I have to agree the uniform feels forced, but I’ll take that over the 80’s throw-back neon that’s been paraded around Snowboard style for the last year. Primarily, you’re spot on about the need for a uniform though – if its all about individuality, why make your team wear a uniform?

Written By jim on February 25th, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

I started snowboarding back in 87. So this is my 23rd season. I am still amazed how marketing experts just still don’t get it. Snowboarding or skateboarding are sports that cannot be controlled from outside. Nike tried to get into snowboarding four-five times and always failed miserably. Then they gave the initiative to snowboarders, true snowboarders and not just some twice-a-year kooks, who do it just because of Shaun White or whoever the hot rider of that day was. Even then, it still didn’t happen overnight. They had to ask permission, they were humble and understood before they acted. Now they get it. It took Nike some 15 years. So I cannot blame you guys for not understanding the outfit or snowboarding. Olympics and snowboarding have never been a good fit. IOC still doesn’t understand it after 12 years.

It’s alright for you to mock and diss this or any other outfit. It’s because you don’t get the middle finger it shoves to the faces of those stiff, bribed IOC guys who try to force all the sports in mold that they have created without asking a permission.

As a statement, it’s a pretty good one. For what comes to the actual outfit, I like it. The middle finger in it.

Here is a good read for those who are interested in snowboarding and olympics from the absolute biggest legend of the sport, Terje Haakonsen. (onboardmag)

Written By You got it wrong on February 25th, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

although i think i agree with your rant here, from just causally watching the olympics… i liked these uniforms, and they felt kinda rebellious to me. but when digging in to your critique i also agree with you… strange. maybe sometimes things should just be accepted at face value, isnt that what fashion in its essence is about??

not STYLE, fashion.

Written By Alan on February 25th, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

This article was shared by a friend, so I’m a newbie to the site. This post seemed disproportionately angry, seemingly spurred by some perceived disingenuous motivations on the part of the people who chose the uniforms. I thought they were fun and really in keeping with the team’s spirit. I watched the women’s half-pipe event and saw a break in the usually overly-dignified and oh-so-serious-this-is-her-one-chance-at-greatness pall of the games. One girl revved herself up by listening to her ipod and singing really loud. Which was awesome.

So, yes, the paragraph you quoted was right. The uniforms weren’t bucking conservatism in general, as you proposed; instead, they were bucking the way-too-serious pitch of the Olympics. You also seem to have misread the paragraph again, because they said the individuality OF SNOWBOARDING. The uniforms were representative of the sport in America. So perhaps individuality was the wrong word; perhaps uniqueness of the sport would have been more appropriate.

In short, maybe this isn’t the best hill to die on against evil marketers and their ridiculous ways.

Written By Travis on February 28th, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

#15 – All snowboarding events are not halfpipe. Halfpipe is a FREESTYLE event. It’s the ‘figure-skating’ of snowboarding. Shaun White gets points, not an official time. He also gets points for appearance. He also has his very own exclusive NBC marketing deal. So he’s definitely a driver.
But that’s not all this sport is. The other two-thirds of the events are SPEED events. NO points for style, no judging. Timing devices. Running courses and gates. That’s what boardercross and alpine is.
Alternative counter-culture emo yadda yadda? Baloney. The original Burton team in Soda Springs in 1982 wore SPEEDSUITS. There WERE NO judged events.
Everybody’s confusing skateboarding with snowboarding. The snowboard mags perpetuate the confusion.

Written By mom on November 20th, 2010 @ 9:03 pm