Dressing the Olympics; “Team USA Made in America”
The Olympic games is for many athletes the most prestigious competition to enter in their careers. Further, it is watched on TV by hundreds of millions of people in the global audience. The London summer Olympics 2012 went down as the single biggest media operation in history (Mills & Barrett 2012:2, Sambrook 2012:1-2). For the host country’s national broadcaster BBC it was the biggest live event ever, and in addition to traditional media it was proclaimed as the first social media summer Olympics (Wardle 2012:1). No other global event offers the same display window to the world. On the one side it is an event of fierce national competition; on the other side it is “a global festival of sport celebrating excellence, fair play and community” (Sambrook 2012:2). From this perspective, the Olympics constitute a concentrate of nationalism fused with globalism. It is building community across borders through a process of embodied nations and national branding, an event where communities of difference and of belonging come together.
Fashion as a business and cultural industry is today highly global, with a supply chain that links together large parts of the world. The literature on fashion today, weather dealing with apparel production or cultural and identity forming aspects, tends to emphasize how different fashion systems in the world compete, co-exist and interact. Interesting to note in regards to the Olympic uniforms then, is that there appears to be a high public and societal expectation of this to be an internal affair altogether. Many countries chose to manifest this by hiring designers who are strongly associated with the nations they represent. To name a few examples from the recent London 2012 Games, Britain choose to hire Beatle daughter Stella McCartney, Italy consulted self-proclaimed patriot Giorgio Armani (Watelow 2012), Jamaica’s choice fell on Bob Marley’s daughter Cedella Marley and the US engaged American icon Ralph Lauren.
However, these choices were not without criticism and controversy. McCartney suffered criticism for making the Union flag all blue and hence not truly reflecting the team she was representing (Rawi 2012), as did Armani who was criticized largely for ignoring the Italian colors of green and red (Waterlow 2012). In Sweden, the national Olympic committee was harshly criticized for outsourcing the design and manufacturing of uniforms to the Chinese sports manufacturer Li-Ning (Ahlvar 2012, Hedström 2012). On the other side of the Atlantic, Lauren stirred up a massive public and political debate for producing the US uniforms in Chinese factories. This led one Democratic senator to propose legislation for domestic manufacturing – known as the “Team USA made in America act” (Storey 2012, Wadhwa 2012).
How does national identity get orchestrated trough the media, fashion, branding and consumer culture? What interpretations can be made of the heated public and political debates during the summer leading up to last year’s American presidential election, and of the meaning and notion of the concept “made in” – or country-of-origin? How can we interpret politicians lobbying for legislation that the American Olympic uniforms should be made in the US, or the demands from a large part of the American general public, as well as celebrities such as business leader Donald Trump, to have uniforms manufactured in China burned and replaced with uniforms made in America? (Storey 2012). What does this tell us about, perhaps not what America is – but of images of what it could be? (Ostberg 2011:230).
The outsourcing of apparel production to low-wage countries in Asia is by no means a novelty. But when it became known that the American Olympic uniforms, signed by Ralph Lauren, had been manufactured in China something new surfaced. Moving beyond explanations that the US was dealing with high unemployment rates and a pressing need to bring lost jobs back to the country, as well as being in the middle of an election campaign where politicians where looking for opportunities to win votes – what could be alternative ways of interpreting the strong reactions in the US?
As discussed by Ostberg, the concept of made in, or country-of-origin, bears connections to the concept of authenticity. Places, such as countries, are invested with symbolic properties that are experienced as “real”. Hence, marketing and branding related to the notions of place are always contingent on existing mythological aspects. This means that the understanding of, in this case, a country’s fashion culture cannot be separated from an overall understanding of that country’s role in popular culture and particular historicity. It is the place that something is associated with that matters, rather than the place where something is produced. To exemplify, Ostberg mentions Ralph Lauren as a brand that does not necessarily have to produce their products in the US, it is more important that their products are designed in the US and that they evoke ideas about Americanness. Further, the notion of the concept of country-of-origin is only meaningful to its intended audience; that is retailers, the media and consumers (Ostberg 2011:224-126). However, when it comes to “made in America”, this label holds mythological properties that extend beyond consumers or the American public, and holds somewhat of a unique position of representing the origins of popular-and consumer culture to the global as well as the domestic audience. The notion of country of origin might link a product or brand to a product-country imagery, with sensory, affective and ritual connotations (Ostberg 2011:225). Within this gap – of what the US is and what it should be – we can begin to understand the reactions towards the outsourcing of the production of Lauren’s uniforms.
Mills, Amie & Tomas Barrett. “Communication gold: The Media Centre behind the Scene” in Rapid Response Issue – Media and the Olympics, JOMEC Journal, Issue 2, November 2012.
Ostberg, Jacob. “The Mythological Aspects of Country-of-Origin: The Case of Swedishness of Swedish Fashion” in Journal of Global Fashion Marketing, Issue 2-4, 2011, pp. 223-234.
Sambrook, Richard. “The Olympics and TV” in Rapid Response Issue – Media and the Olympics, JOMEC Journal, Issue 2, November 2012.
Wardle, Claire. Social Media, Newsgathering and the Olympics” in Rapid Response Issue – Media and the Olympics, JOMEC Journal, Issue 2, November 2012.
Ahlvar, Lotta. ”Sverige struntar i att använda OS som en arena för landets modedesign” in Sydsvenskan, published 20120726, [accessed 20121210]. Retrieved from; http://www.sydsvenskan.se/opinion/aktuella-fragor/sverige-struntar-i-att-anvanda-os-som-en-arena-for-landets-modedesign/
Hedström, Sofia. “Sverige sämst i OS” in Svenska Dagbladet, published 20120721, [accessed 20121210]. Retrieved from; http://www.svd.se/kultur/sverige-samst-i-os_7359634.svd
Rawi, Maysa. ”Oh no, they’ve turned the Union flag blue! Team GB models new Olympics 2012 kit designed by Stella McCartney for Adidas” in Mail Online, published 20120322, [accessed 20121210]. Retrieved from; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2118709/London-2012-Team-GB-models-Olympics-kit-designed-Stella-McCartney-Adidas.html
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Wadhwa, Viveke. “The Future of Manufacturing Is in America, Not China” in Foreign Policy, published 20120717, [accessed 20121210]. Retrieved from; http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/07/17/the_future_of_manufacturing_is_in_america_not_china
Waterlow, Lucy. ”No gold medal for Giorgio Armani as he unveils dreary navy Olympic kit for Italy (where’s the red and green?) in Mail Online, published 20120511, [accessed 20130108]. Retrieved from; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2142855/Armani-unveils-Italys-official-Olympics-kit-think-Stella-McCartneys-better.html
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