Long before anyone dared to use the term “Athleisure” (which I hope never to say out loud), the Olympics had been combining fashion and sports. A kit for the Olympic has to balance many delicate elements like the comfort and performance of the athletes while at the same time making them look attractive and proud to represent their country.
Not an easy job considering the games have a 120-year history. Great Britain along with Switzerland and France are the only countries that have taken part in every edition. Due to their long trajectory with the games, Great Britain’s personalised clothing for the Olympics has an interesting evolution that is worth studying.
History of The UK’s Olympic Kit
This is why, and also thanks to the Rio Olympics that are coming up, we’ve decided to review the evolution of the UK Olympic kit throughout the years.
This is the century that would see the resurgence of the games. Far from what we’re accustomed today, the sporting event was pretty tame, focusing solely on the performance of the athletes without the showmanship. The host city was Athens and it took place during the summer of 1896. A grand total of 214 athletes participated in 43 different disciplines. Delegations came from 14 countries, the biggest ones being Germany, France, USA and Great Britain.
Trivia: This would be the only games where women were not allowed to participate.
That year, it appears that the only purpose of clothes was performance and national identification was reserved for a small detail like an embroidery or a badge if any.
The first century of the games would bring an unprecedented amount of changes, including letting women take part and going from 24 participating countries to 197. During those 100 years, the Olympics faced two World Wars (two!), political turmoil and even terrorism.
1900 would be the year where female athletes were first allowed to perform at the Olympics. Even though they were permitted to engage, the social convention of the times didn’t leave a lot of space for women to be taken very seriously. If it was frowned upon for a lady to sweat!
Trivia: Tug of war was considered an Olympic sport until 1920.
Attire was subject to the etiquette of the times which meant long sleeves and big skirts. As for the men, their sportswear was much more comfortable than their female counterparts although still much more constrained by today’s standards. Aside from a small flag of their respective country on the chest, uniforms from different delegations were indistinguishable from one another.
1912 introduced automatic timing and photo finish to the competition. Due to World War I, there was only one edition celebrated during this decade.
Trivia: It was the first time that athletes from all five continents participated.
In terms of apparel, an effort was made to make clothes a bit more “comfortable”, but not without consequences. Due of their “revealing” swimsuits some female teams like the US were barred from getting into the swimming pool — which by the way, was the first year women were allowed to participate in aquatic sports.
After a brief hiatus, the games returned and were celebrated in Antwerp in honour of the Belgian people who suffered during the war. The 20’s would introduce several elements including the now world-famous flag with the five rings representing each continent.
Trivia: In 1928, Coca-Cola became the first brand ever to sponsor the Olympic games.
The roaring decade would become a bridge between the past century and the new one in terms of social conventions, science and economy. Societies became less conservative and therefore athletes started showing more skin by choosing more comfortable outfits. Slowly, women started wearing trousers and switching stockings for socks.
This decade would see the now infamous Berlin Olympics that Hitler orchestrated to prove the superiority of the so-called Aryan race. In order to make sure his message spread far and wide, the Führer made sure that these would be the first games to be broadcast on TV. Too bad for him, since it was Jesse Owens (a black man from the US) the athlete who earned the most gold medals (four) that year. If that doesn’t make you believe in karma, I don’t know what will.
Trivia: Allegedly, Jesse Owens and his competitor the German Luz Long remained friends until the death of the latter during World War II.
The 30’s were the first decade where athletes would wear a specially designed “formal” outfit for ceremonies which were composed of blazers, trousers (for both men and women) and jersey cotton sweat tops. It was also Jesse himself who was approached by a new shoe company founded by the Rudolf and Adolf Dassler to wear their trainers. The athlete accepted and by doing so became the first celebrity in the Olympics to endorse a product. By the way, after World War II the Dassler brothers separated and founded Puma and Adidas. I don’t know if you have ever heard of those brands.
The programmed Olympics for 1940 and 1944 were both cancelled due to World War II. With short notice, and still very fresh from the bloody conflict, in 1948 London was called to host the games with very short notice and rose to the occasion.
Trivia: Ottavio Missoni, founder of the fashion label Missoni, not only was one of the athletes representing Italy but also designed part of the national kit. Puma sponsored the West German team.
In terms of fashion, stretch jersey fabric became a common staple for athletic attire and for the first time, women wore similar clothes to their male counterparts. The British team featured a uniform with three stripes of red, white and blue. A graphic element that would become a stable for the UK kit throughout most of the XX century.
Helsinki and Melbourne were the two places chosen to host the summer games during the 50’s. Even though the credit is mostly given to the city of the “Land down under”, Stockholm held part of the events that year, more specifically the equestrian activities because the Australian quarantine laws regarding foreign animals were too severe.
Trivia: Israel and the Soviet Union enter the games for the first time.
According to this BBC video, in 1956 the British team reunited in a hotel in London to pick up their official kit before heading towards Melbourne. With the 50’s also came to the industrialisation of fabrics manufacturing and the development of synthetic fabrics like lycra and spandex, which meant really good news for sportswear.
The decade of the 60’s would mark many firsts, Tokyo became the first Asian city to host the games and Mexico City would do the same for Latin America in 1968, it would also be the one with the highest latitude. Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia became the first black, African athlete to win a gold medal in the Olympics and he did it by beating his opponents in a marathon — barefoot. The swinging decade would also see the rise of figures like Muhammad Ali.
Trivia: 10 days before the Olympic Games in Mexico City, the Mexican government ordered an assault against a student protest at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco. Till this day, nobody knows for sure how many were murdered, but most investigations calculate that there were hundreds of victims.
In terms of fashion, synthetic fabrics continue to become more and more sophisticated. Elastane and spandex materials are the norm now for athletic attire due to its elasticity and support. The UK media started paying more attention to the Olympic kit when in 1968 a press conference was organised to showcase the new uniforms with professional models.
The 70’s would mark some politically complicated years for the Olympics. In 1972 one of the scariest and most tragic episodes of the games would take place, the Munich Massacre. The attack conducted by Palestinian terrorists ended in the assassination of nine Israeli athletes and coaches. The episode forced Germany to reexamine their anti-terrorist policies and the Olympics committee to tighten security measures in future editions. In true Olympic fashion though, the games were not cancelled and after a 34-hour halt, it resumed the activities to prove that the sporting spirit would not bend to terrorism. Then in 1976, Tanzania organised a boycott that involved 22 other countries. The reason was New Zealand’s rugby team involvement with South Africa’s apartheid. On the bright side, the Munich games were the biggest till the date and the Montreal edition was the first time where women could compete in handball, basketball and rowing.
Thanks to the development of Elastane and Spandex, sporting apparel like leotards became commonplace, allowing women more freedom than ever before. Great Britain’s kit is recognisable by the horizontal red, white and blue stripes across the chest of the athletes.
This decade was filled with boycotts and political tension. Moscow’s edition in 1980 was boycotted by a number of countries led by the US because of the 1979 USSR invasion of Afghanistan. Then in 1984, in retaliation, the Soviet Union protested the games in Los Angeles. And in 1988, North Korea gathered a small number of countries to avoid the events in Seul. Even with political turmoil, the games in Los Angeles and Seul broke records in numbers of participating delegations, disciplines and revenue. Thanks to the opening to corporate sponsorship, 1984 and 1988 become the models for the events we know today.
Trivia: In the 80’s, tennis returned to the programme after a hiatus of 64 years.
The 80’s would bring big changes to sporting gear: aside from the big hair, the decade brought us athletic wear that was plastered with logos and slogans thanks to the new sponsorship deals. This was also the decade were sports started to become part of everyone’s lifestyle. Suddenly gyms started showing up everywhere and it was cool to be fit and healthy. Sporting attire was not only for performance purposes anymore, it was now also designed to look cool. Great Britain features their most casual kit till the date.
The Olympics started the decade peacefully with a boycott-free edition (the first since 1972) and an unforgettable song written and performed by Freddie Mercury. The laid-back nineties would only be tainted during the 1996 games in Atlanta by a terrorist bomb that was detonated at the Centennial Olympic Park and killed two people. Baseball, badminton, beach volleyball, mountain biking, lightweight rowing, women’s football and women’s judo were all added to the list of sports.
Trivia: With 11 years of age, Spain’s Carlos Front became the youngest Olympic competitor since 1900.
As the end of the century approaches an effort is made to bring the attire closer to the future and in the opening and closing ceremonies “formal” wear gets replaced by futuristic-looking tracksuits. In a design choice most would like to forget, the UK Olympic kit for the games in Barcelona featured a kaleidoscopic pattern down the sides of the tops.
The four games that have taken part during the new millennium have been exciting to say the least. Little can be said other than the games keep getting bigger and bigger with each hosting city wanting to overshadow the previous one.
The Olympics welcomed the XXI century with its second games hosted in the southern hemisphere. The emotional games in Sidney were followed by an impressive return to its roots for Athens 2004 and then in 2008 the flashy (and controversial) edition in Beijing. Triathlon, taekwondo and woman’s wrestling were added to the program and athletes like Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe became world famous.
As new technologies develop, bodysuits become more and more advanced. New synthetic fabrics allow for breathability, but also support and elasticity at the same time. New silhouettes fit bodies like a glove. For the first time ever, less skin is shown than past decades. The Beijing games are also famous for having Nike and Adidas bid against each other to see who could sponsor the most athletes. British kits started the decade with dominating shades of blue, but later shared space with white. Red was left solely for decorating trims and details.
This decade started strong for the United Kingdom when London became the first city in history to host the games three times. The edition was praised for its organisation and high number attendance. In 2016, Rio de Janeiro will host the games in what will become the first time the Olympics are held in South America. What the final outcome will be, nobody knows for sure, but the games have been plagued in recent months with rumours of poor organisation, corruption and a literal mosquito.
As for Great Britain’s Olympic kit, the 2010’s will be known as the Stella years. For both 2012 and 2016, fashion designer Stella McCartney has partnered with Adidas to design the official garments for the British team to mixed results. Some people love the designs, while others find them tacky. For the London games, the outfits were panned for looking too much like the Scottish flag and not the Union Jack. For the games in Rio, Stella learned her lesson and toned down the blue, but still featured the exaggerated graphics that some have compared to a “Knock off from ASDA”.
What do you think? Do you like the contemporary kit? Or are you more of a fan of the classic ones? Let us know in the comments below, or join the conversation via any of our social media outlets. In the meantime, keep reading the Printsome blog for more awesome content.
- “Team GB Olympic kits through the ages” via the BBC
- “Team GB 2012 Olympic kit revealed” via the BBC
- “Olympic sportswear: a complete history” via Vis for Vintage
- “First modern Olympic Games: Historic photos show athletes competing in Athens in 1896” via Mirror
- “The History of Cycling at the Olympics” via probekit.co.uk
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