The inevitable result of the fall of the Ivy League Look in 1967 is that eventually, for a certain segment of the public, the look would become America’s version of the powder and wigs of the ancient regime. Which means it’s time for the guillotine.
Ralph Lauren, the man largely credited with saving the Ivy League Look from extinction by making it fashionable and aspirational, is now invariably on the chopping block, at least for his prep-infused Olympic outfits. Such critiques have been lobbed since 2008, of course, when RL got the contract to make the opening ceremony outfits, but the harangues grow more vociferous every four years.
Team USA has had an unmistakably preppy look since 2008, when the U.S. Olympic Committee gave Ralph Lauren the contract to become the official outfitter for the opening and closing ceremonies. But this year, there’s been intense backlash over an aesthetic that’s historically tied to whiteness and privilege.
There was nothing surprising about these uniforms, but this year, people mercilessly mocked them on Twitter. “Every Summer Olympics, they let Ralph Lauren dress our team like they’re on vacation in Newport,” wrote Drew Magary, a columnist at the sports blog Defector. “What in the East Coast boarding school are these?” commented writer Rebecca Welch. “Team Karen,” an Air Force Veteran tweeted, referring to a nickname given to white women who act in an entitled way toward people of color. Some people even called for Ralph Lauren to be fired as the official outfitter of the Olympics.
Given that the Olympic uniforms have such symbolism, reflecting a country’s value’s and identity, it’s not surprising that they’d trigger such a strong reaction. New York Times reporter Astead Herndon pointed out on Twitter that the looks don’t capture the diversity and multiculturalism of the U.S. team. “Every Olympics Ralph Lauren dresses up a diverse cross section of America’s finest athletes as a Vampire Weekend cover band,” he wrote, referring to the band founded at Columbia University and known for its preppy outfits.
On some level, the response makes sense in the wake of the racial and social reckoning that has taken place over the last year. The preppy aesthetic has been historically associated with elite, often exclusionary spaces. Ralph Lauren’s mascot, the polo player, harkens to a sport that is overwhelmingly played by wealthy white people. And while Ralph Lauren and other preppy brands like Rowing Blazers have made an effort to diversify by using Black and brown models, many people still associate the look with white privilege.
As to what the alternative might look like, you can probably imagine:
It’s unclear how long the brand’s contract extends for, particularly given the public outcry this year. If the U.S. Olympic Committee does switch designers, we have our money on Virgil Abloh. We can already see the cutting-edge streetwear styles he’d create for the team, along with the letters “U.S.A.” in his characteristic ironic quotation marks.
Wear your classic American clothes with dignity and pride, gentlemen, almost like you were representing your country. — CC