With Japan’s own kimono as one notable exception, national dress is becoming rarer and rarer on the world stage, replaced instead with a generic global uniform filled with design elements of generally Western origin.
The imminent Olympic and Paralympic Games — one of the largest gatherings of shared global culture, but one where we stand separated by country — presents this tension well. It comes out vividly in the uniforms the athletes wear, each illustrating the values the country wishes to embody. So, as you watch the opening ceremony, do bear in mind that you are watching one of the largest runway shows the world has to offer.
While the format of uniforms is bound by certain practical concerns and, like most things Olympic, strict rules, they’re still a rare means of national expression. In the past, our national dress was generally crafted with regional textiles and with shared history in mind, but in the present day things are not so simple.
If you walk down a street in a lot of world fashion capitals, what is surprising is how similarly people dress despite their diversity, leaving people flustered when they are suddenly asked to put on the national costume they had long set aside.
Hence the delivery becomes somewhat archaic, with techniques and traditional motifs requiring some explanation before you notice them. But there are bombastic options — Ralph Lauren’s affluently preppy uniform for Team USA and Hudson’s Bay’s graffiti-strewn denim jackets for Team Canada are stark clothing contrasts between neighboring nations, but they are united in reaching into the fashion past and plucking images from a time when design was linked to a sense of place.
Japan’s own uniforms are distinctly subtle, inverting the “sunrise red” jacket and white trousers of Tokyo’s 1964 opening ceremony uniform to white on the top, red on the bottom. As a reference to the Japanese flag, the outfit is pretty literal, but there’s depth to it.
The Japanese Olympic Committee says it will be the first time that Olympians and Paralympians have worn the same uniform in the history of the games. This is achieved by making a uniform with accessibility for all bodies in mind, a cause that fashion as a whole is still fumbling with. Seeing the athletes line up in their matching, but subtly different uniforms, the Olympics makes accessible fashion look the norm, and one is left wondering, why do anything else?
Track to street
If the uniforms for the opening and closing ceremonies are the runway of fashion at the games, then the uniforms athletes wear while competing are the street scene, especially as many of the kits worn by athletes will be sold at retail to sports enthusiasts and fashion fans alike.
The one to watch has to be Nike’s skateboarding sub-brand Nike SB, which takes the once counterculture street scene to the Olympics for its debut. The brand’s uniforms for the Japanese athletes take their design calls from Tokyo street art, riffing off a psychedelic cityscape graphic and 1970s retro font picking out JPN on the shoulder. It is a nice nod to the subcultural origins of the now-mainstream sport, without dwelling too much in the past. The collection drops online on July 20 on the company’s SNKRS App, as well as Nike.com.
Japanese designers are also making their mark on athletes from abroad, as Hiroko Takahashi continues her collaboration with Adidas by working on the kits for the Team USA golf team. The titles of her fūrinzankan– (wind, forest, fire and mountain) themed collection is taken from a saying dating back to Sengoku Period (1467-1615) daimyo Takeda Shingen’s banner. A bold battle cry heading into the games, and with each of the four elements assigned to a different outfit and round of the competition, it allows the golfers to reinvent themselves on a daily basis.
Sporting a legacy
Even for those disinterested in what the athletes are wearing, you might be surprised to find that a lot of activewear technology is already part of your wardrobe. High-performance textiles and mass-produced footwear has a long legacy in sport, as do undergarments where many innovations have been in the support of physical endeavor.
The latest is a T-shirt produced by white T-shirt specialist shop Torihs that has endeavored to solve a problem apparently plaguing men: visible nipple outlines. This is a situation that leaves many men layering vests or shirts even in the midst of summer.
This Makuake crowd-funded venture smashed its funding goal some eight times over, and the T-shirts (¥8,500, including tax) are available for preorder until July 23. Using a mix of tech and internal paneling that has been common in sportswear for some time now, this is hopefully the answer to many prayers as we head into the heat of the summer.
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