I often think about Ralph Lauren and The Great Gatsby in the same breath. And ever since August, I’ve added the Olympics to my exhale.
As TV watchers know, Ralph Lauren designed the Olympic opening ceremony uniforms for the USA team. It’s both ironic and fitting that Lauren outfitted the athletes in preppy navy jackets, white trousers, and a white driving hat—an ensemble that wouldn’t have been out of place in the film The Great Gatsby. Of course, you also know that Lauren made Gatsby’s clothes for that film and arguably, those clothes were as much the star of the film as was Robert Redford.
The Great Gatsby is both a novel and film about manufacturing one’s identity. Jay Gatsby rose from his working-class roots as Jimmy Gatz to court, lose, and temporarily woo back Daisy, a wealthy Midwestern beauty whose roots were planted firmly in WASP culture.
And he did it by wearing his military uniform, which functioned as a class leveler.
Daisy’s husband, Tom, once noted that the only way Gatsby could legitimately get near Daisy’s house was if he were to deliver the groceries to the back door. But in his uniform, he wasn’t “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere”; rather, he was able to penetrate Daisy’s society, which should have been off-limits to him.
Ralph Lauren, too, famously changed his name into what has become an international symbol of WASP style and culture, in the process gaining access to and ultimately holding the key to elaborate lifestyle fantasies, as depicted in his advertisements.
But these Olympic athletes don’t need a uniform to hide behind; they have their original talents to gain them entry to the Olympic Games. Putting Ralph Lauren uniforms on these athletes smacks of deception, as if, like Gatsby, the athletes were poseurs rather than the “real thing.”
If you want to argue, though, that Ralph Lauren represents the self-made American man à la Gatsby, (and we can add woman here too), then the choice of his clothes was brilliant, for these athletes were participating in the Games not only to achieve personal bests but also to forge their name in the national consciousness, to “make something of themselves.”
Although Ralph Lauren’s Olympic uniforms can be seen as homogenizing diversity among athletes (and Suzanna Mars has a fine post on this), they’re also, in the Gatsby tradition, a symbol of personal transformation. I’d bet that most of the American athletes would have been fulfilled to leave the Games newly crowned an Olympian. But do they want to represent Lauren’s cultivated WASPy style?
In other words, should Lauren's uniforms be one-size-fits-all? Can they be anything else? I like made-to-measure, myself.