Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Is Team USA's militaristic uniform a problem?

By Paul Achter, Special to CNN
July 28, 2012 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
Designed by Ralph Lauren, Team USA's opening ceremony uniforms clearly draw inspiration from the dress uniforms of the U.S. Army and Navy. Designed by Ralph Lauren, Team USA's opening ceremony uniforms clearly draw inspiration from the dress uniforms of the U.S. Army and Navy.
HIDE CAPTION
2012 Olympics: Opening ceremony uniforms
2012 Olympics: Opening ceremony uniforms
2012 Olympics: Opening ceremony uniforms
2012 Olympics: Opening ceremony uniforms
2012 Olympics: Opening ceremony uniforms
2012 Olympics: Opening ceremony uniforms
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Achter: In Olympics, uniform is a calculated part of each nation's global image
  • Achter: Team USA's 2012 opening ceremony uniforms draw from military style
  • Critics charge that military fashions are a problem because they aestheticize war, he says
  • Achter: How about getting Betsey Johnson to design our uniform for the next Olympics?

Editor's note: Paul Achter is an associate professor in the department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies at the University of Richmond. His current research examines the rhetorical strategies used by politicians and media during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Follow him on Twitter: @Achter

(CNN) -- When people across the world tune in to the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics on Friday, regular TV programming will be set aside for pageantry and pomp.

Amid all the attention to the "Made in China" controversy about Team USA's uniforms, little has been written about their design. But if numerous online slide shows ranking the best and worst of the opening ceremonies uniforms are any indication, the design is what we're most interested in.

Opinion: Why not make Olympic uniforms in China?

Nations did not always wear uniforms in the Olympic Games, and the United States did not adopt a cohesive look until about 1920.

Paul Achter
Paul Achter

Today, however, with huge worldwide audiences and markets at stake, the uniform is a calculated part of each nation's global image. The colors, patterns, silhouettes, lines and shapes of each nation's uniform form a statement about its identity. U.S. designers, for example, have frequently used white cowboy hats in their ensembles.

Strike a pose: High style meets high performance at London 2012

Designed by Ralph Lauren, Team USA's 2012 opening ceremony uniforms feature berets and navy, brass-buttoned, double-breasted blazers for the men that -- even without chevrons, medals or epaulettes -- draw clear inspiration from the dress uniforms of the U.S. Army and Navy.

Lepore on Olympic uniform controversy

Should the appropriation of military style concern us?

Almost all Olympic uniforms we see today derive from religious or military forms of apparel. Military apparel migrated to civilian life centuries ago, when veterans realized uniforms invited attributions of reliability, discipline and heroism and when various civil institutions used them as a means of regulating groups of people. Men's clothing strongly has been influenced by military looks, and the fashion industry markets "military chic" to women as well.

America's love affair with military looks is especially intense and enduring. And unlike the Vietnam War, when military uniforms were appropriated in anti-war protests, today's military looks are part of a sartorial status quo that subtly affirms a pro-soldier, pro-military message.

We know the athletes are not real warriors, of course, but clothing sends powerful messages. Fashion critics long have charged that military fashions are a problem because they aestheticize war and divorce clothes from their true functions and origins. We ought to be wary of efforts to make any aspect of war desirable.

Considering that the U.S. spends more on defense than the next 10 nations combined, some would argue that dressing the Olympians like members of the armed forces during the biggest television event of the year is an arrogant or impolitic choice.

Skeptics might counter that Jamaica's opening ceremony outfits are militaristic, too. But Jamaica's are more clearly sportswear, and in color, pattern and tone, their look is joyful and lighthearted. And Jamaica isn't a global military power.

For most Americans, however, the military style of the 2012 the uniforms will raise little concern because we have been encouraged to ignore the countless ways in which military culture is integrated into our society.

Fashion designers promote military styles as cutting edge, but usually refute the notion that the military aesthetic has anything to do with real war. Glitzy Pentagon marketing campaigns, military-backed Hollywood films and first-person shooter video games elevate the cultural status of uniformed troops and encourage us to identify with them. All of these things help maintain a pro-military citizenry.

The 2012 Olympics uniforms are another in a long series of salutes to and affirmations of the American military. They are a product of an inherited, imperial history of clothing, of our particular war-fighting history and of the "support the troops" trope so common in 21st century war rhetoric.

Readers: Forget uniforms, Olympians would bet better off 'naked'

Whether we're comfortable with it or not, the military uniform of Team USA is at least as American as white cowboy hats.

But there are other choices. Historically, roughly half of the U.S. opening ceremonies uniforms have been inspired by sportswear, including the excellent styles in the 2004 and 2008 Summer Games. Maybe it's time to get more creative.

In the next Olympics, how about getting Betsey Johnson to design a uniform that is radically different?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Achter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT