sharing the Olympic spirit

The puzzle of Olympic outfit design
(China Daily/ Olympian)
Updated: 2007-11-23 10:07


One of the hottest controversies surrounding the Beijing Games concerns the ceremonial costumes that the Chinese hosts and Olympians will wear next summer, and the kind of social messages these outfits convey.

Well-dressed hostesses at the award ceremony of a "Good Luck Beijing" Olympic test event. [Xinhua]

When it comes to ceremonial dress, the Olympic organizers have worked out all-encompassing requirements that have triggered a range of different opinions from local haute couture houses as well as the general public on what clothing can best transmit the messages of "Chinese elements, national characteristics and the trend of the times" at the same time.

Since May of this year, designers across the nation have been invited to submit a wide array of costumes, including those for hostesses who will bear medals or flowers, and for the men who will raise the national flags at the podium ceremonies.

There will be 302 such ceremonies for the Olympics and 471 for the Paralympic Games next year.

While some favor an ancient Chinese robe with wide sleeves and a belt at the waist for the hosts, many others think the costumes should be "romantic" and "creative," or at least more cool and chic.

People have also found it difficult to agree on the type of clothing. Some suggest that Cheongsam dresses should be used for the victory ceremonies, while others claim that this traditional female dress featuring slits on either side is popular among receptionists at Chinese hotels and restaurants, but is not appropriate for the Olympics.

To complicate the design process, the costumes must also reflect "national characteristics," no mean feat in a country of 56 ethnic groups each boasting a unique form of art and culture.

As an indication of the ongoing public debate on the issue, organizers will only make a final decision after gathering public opinion on the short-listed choices that were earlier selected from a national solicitation drive.

In comparison, the international design competition for ceremonial outfits and adornments for Chinese Olympians, organized by a local Olympic sponsor, is less daunting in its requirements. The contest, which began at the end of last year, calls for "traditional Chinese elements", but at the same time allows "contemporary wisdom and future concepts" and intends to "present the spirit and outlook of the modern Chinese people".

However, it is still a demanding task. For starters, the sponsor, a Chinese apparel maker, has already ruled out the Chinese robe, Mao suit or Cheongsam as the outfits for Chinese athletes at Olympic ceremonies, because they are either outdated or not suitable for athletes. What outfits will be chosen to reflect Chinese tradition remains anybody's guess.

The contest will select eight finalists and submit them to the national sports authority for approval before they are paraded at a celebration to mark the 100-day countdown to the opening of the Games next year.

While writing this column, I happened to see a post-modern costume design from the 1992 Albertville Winter Games in France that appeared on the website of the Olympic Museum.

The explanatory note reads:

"Albertville faced several problems. How could a small, largely unheard-of town in the middle of the mountains, without any obvious salient features, give itself international appeal? ... It decided to make an impact, to surprise and astonish, with a riot of colors and modernity. The opening and closing ceremonies, torch, medals, podiums and costumes took people by surprise."

It was almost too easy for Albertville to pull it off.

Perhaps Beijing, a modern metropolis with a glorious past, could also go for a simple design as well as transcending national boundaries to communicate its message effectively to the world next summer.

My advice to the Olympic wardrobe designers and judges is: Make your messages simple but powerful.


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