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Published: Wednesday, 2/10/2010

Athletes become trendsetters when the games begin

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Athletes from around the world will be dressed to win when the Olympics kick off on Friday in Vancouver. For the rest of us, it may be a peek at the future of fashion.

There is a long history of the Olympics influencing fashion over the years, ranging from specific products to high-tech materials that eventually make their way to more mainstream use, according to Patricia Cunningham, a fashion historian and associate professor at Ohio State University.

One of the most high-profile examples in recent years would be the blue berets that became must-have headgear after the American team wore them to the opening ceremony of the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002.

"That became very popular. In fact, I bought a beret to put in our costume collection," Ms. Cunningham said. "It was something that connected [people] to the Olympics and it was not very expensive."

Those hats, designed by the Canadian company Roots, were bought by Americans faster than they could be stitched together. One store in Salt Lake City sold 25,000 of them in a single day, company co-founder Michael Budman said.

While the Detroit native said things have become more commercial now, it wasn't like that then.

"Our mandate was always to really take care of the athletes and make them look like a team. ... We never got into the Olympic movement per se to try and capitalize on the opportunity," he said. "I think we redefined the whole fashion statement as far as the Olympics go."

This year, it could be a set of mittens that go red hot. More than 1.5 million pairs of red, knitted mittens bearing the Olympic rings logo and a white maple leaf have been sold since October for $10 each to raise money for host athletes, according to news reports. That's enough for at least one in every 34 Canadians.

Polo Ralph Lauren is the official outfitter of the U.S. team this year, and its vintage-inspired designs for the opening ceremony includes a classic cable turtleneck, navy and red down jacket, and a traditional wool hat with an American flag, according to the company.

"Polo Ralph Lauren has outfitted the team with a timeless look - one that fellow Americans will be proud to wear," Lisa Baird, U.S. Olympic Committee chief marketing officer, said in a statement.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the U.S. Olympic Collection will be available in Polo Ralph Lauren retail stores, certain department stores, and at ralphlauren.com.

While such outfits may be eye-catching, what athletes wear during competition can influence fashion just as much, whether it's in the winter or summer games.

"One of the most visible connections between the Olympics and contemporary clothing may be found in swim wear," explained Patricia Warner, an expert in the history of dress and retired professor from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "The earliest manifestation of this came about in the 1912 Olympics when the two Australian women who won all the women's medals ... wore a new version of the swim suit based on men's models - a first for women. This new suit became the typical wool-knit suit of the 1920s and 1930s."

Ms. Warner added: "Speedo's skin-tight stretch bathing suit first appeared internationally in the 1956 Olympics, and we all know where that led."

Of course, track star Florence Griffith Joyner ran in one-legged spandex body suits, so not all fashion statements get picked up. Specific articles of clothing aside, though, it's a good bet that the fabric technologies used in outfitting today's Olympians for competition will make their way to the general public someday.

"Eventually that kind of technology trickles down to what we will wear. It will start influencing things through active wear," said Noel Palomo-Lovinski, assistant professor in fashion design at Kent State University.

Consider winter coats that aren't nearly as bulky as they were in the past but still keep people warm.

"We're wearing these pretty amazing jackets that are very, very light and are easy to take care of, and that comes from places like the Olympics," she said.

Ms. Cunningham said it's hard to predict what might become a hit thanks to the upcoming Vancouver Games.

"I think anything that's fresh and new and a little bit different from what people had before, there's always that possibility of catching on," she said.

Contact Ryan E. Smith at:

ryansmith@theblade.com

or 419-724-6103



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