From full-length dresses to sparkly leotards, a lot has changed about women’s Olympic uniforms over the last 116 years.
Women competed in the summer Olympics for the first time ever in 1900. That year, the games were held in Paris, which, as the fashion capital of the world, feels fitting … because what the ladies wore during the events likely garnered as much attention as their athletic performances.
In the intervening 116 years, spectators—who tune in to root for their countrymen and women—are still fascinated by Olympic uniforms. Sometimes the game attire can spark just as many headlines as the scores they win. (Who can forget Flo-Jo’s unitards and flamboyant manicures? Or the full-length swimsuits that helped break records in the 2008 games?)
Early Olympic uniforms were far from the lightweight, high-tech and dynamic ones athletes wear today: clothes followed traditional Victorian dress standards of corsets, and long white day dresses with high collared tops and long sleeves. Since the 1900s, though, the number of sporting events women participate in during the Olympics has ballooned from just five sports to 40, and their uniforms have changed just as dramatically. Hemlines rose, arms were bared, and “wicking” entered the lexicon, just to name a few changes. But perhaps most importantly, uniform designers began to consider how the clothes could best serve the athlete, rather than the other way around.
Interested to see how the Olympic apparel for women in 1912 and 1962 compare to 2012? Well, stay tuned, and keep scrolling.
Women first participated in Archery at the St. Louis, Missouri Olympics in 1904. But Archery as an Olympic sport for women was short lived, making an appearance in two early Olympics (1904 and 1908), and then disappearing until the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Sybil “Queenie” Newall won gold at the 1908 Olympics in London.
As we move from 1904 to 1972, not only has the women’s archery uniform evolved, but so has the bow, trading natural materials for synthetic ones. The 1972 Munich Olympic gold medalist Doreen Wilber (American) wears a fashionable white mini skirt and top printed with stars and the USA logo.
Two-time gold medalist (2000 and 2004), Yun Mi-Jin of South Korea is seen here setting up for her shot at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Notice how the uniform is still predominantly white, but is now accentuated with sublimation graphics which was prominent on many of the other Olympic sport uniforms at this time.
Currently ranked number-one in the world, gold-medalist archer Ki Bo-bae of South Korea takes aim at the 2012 London Olympics. Her uniform is very classic—all white with a bucket hat with plaid brim detail.
Athletics (track and field)
Women’s athletics, also known as track and field, was introduced at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.
Wearing a baggy short-sleeved top and shorts embellished with patriotic striped trim, Betty Robinson (American, second from left) was the first 100m female Olympic gold medalist in 1928. This was only Betty’s fourth 100m competition ever, and she matched the world record in this Olympic event.
100m gold medalist Helen Stephens (also known as the “Fulton Flash”) and her American teammates show off their 1936 Berlin Germany Olympic uniforms. These uniforms (along with uniforms from many other sports), continued to carry the iconic diagonal striping across the jersey. Notice the tighter fit of the jersey, the introduction of a tank top and shorter shorts. These uniform evolutions provided better range of motion and comfort for the athlete.
The sporty diagonal stripe was also adopted by Federations outside of the United States, like Australia. Here is gold medalist Betty Cuthbert (right) from New South Wales, wearing her 100m uniform for the Melbourne, Australia Olympics in 1956. It was very common for uniforms of the ’50s and ’60s to take on everyday fashion details, like the feminine boat neckline on Betty’s uniform.
American Wilma Rudolph (center) won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. The uniforms at this time were more streamlined, as synthetic materials were newly accessible for manufacturers. Also notice the newer USA federation logo, moving from a single crest to “USA” across the chest—which is still used today.
West German Annegret Richter (second from right) embraces her teammates after winning gold in the 100m at the Montreal Canada Olympics in 1976. Notice how the uniform is evolving to a lightweight knit construction, similar to modern-day men’s underwear with a brief and tank, embellished with the West German federation logo.
Setting a new Olympic record of 10.97 seconds in the 100m, Evelyn Ashford (American), shown here in 1984 in L.A., wears an original version of the modern day track and field uniform—a polyester singlet and shorts. Notice the advent of sponsorship logos (Kappa) which are still in use today, but placement, size and quantity is now regulated by the IOC.
The fashionable “Flo-Jo”—Florence Griffith Joyner (American) celebrating her 100m gold-medal win at the 1988 Olympics. She was notorious for challenging the norm when it came to track and field uniforms. At the trials for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, she wore a one-legged unitard that she created herself, and here she wears one of the first unitards to be worn by female athletes in track and field—accessorized by her custom finger nail art.
In 1996, the introduction of new printing techniques allowed track and field uniforms to be more graphic in nature—which also meant that designers needed fewer pattern pieces to achieve a bright color. Uniforms weighed less and provided a better compressive fit. Like Flo-Jo, Gail Devers (American) seen here competing in the 100m at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, also approached competition fully made up with make-up, jewelry and painted nails.
Stu Forster | Getty Images
The continued evolution of printing and graphics on track and field uniforms can be seen at the 2012 and this coming year in 2016 at the Olympics. Some uniforms will even have aerodynamic textures applied to the uniform materials to reduce drag. Here is the gold medalist of the 100m in 2012, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica.
Dressage originates from the French word “training” and is a sport that was devised for training military horses. In 1952 at the Helsinki Olympics, both men and women of civilian status were able to compete. This co-ed Olympic sport is unique as there are not separate male and female teams.
Lis Hartel won the silver medal at the Helsinki Olympics, in 1952—where she was the first woman ever to medal in Dressage. In this sport, the horse, as much as the rider are judged on their ability to show mastery of predefined levels of skill. The uniforms worn in dressage are quite formal, as the sport originated from a military practice and military uniforms were originally worn in competition. Today these uniforms are known as “show” dress.
West Germany’s Liselott Linsenhoff with her horse Piaff at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where she won gold. As seen on Liselott, in the sport of dressage riders typically wear white or light colored breeches, with a full leather seat to prevent slippage in the saddle. They also wear a white shirt with a stock tie that is held down with a stock pin. The stock ties were originally quite functional, as they were used to bandage an injured horse, sling an injured rider’s arm, and prevent rain from entering the neckline of the shirt. Today they are merely decorative.
Attending the gold medal dressage ceremony at the 1996 Atlanta Georgia Olympics, Isabell Werth of Germany looked emotional but perfectly dressed while receiving her medal. For women who participate in dressage, there is even a formality to how the hair is worn. If a rider has longer hair, she will wear it in a bun, with a show bow (barrette or tie with a small bow and thick hair net) or with a hair net (of matching hair color)—as shown here.
Dutch dressage rider Anky van Grusven on her horse Bonfire at the Sydney Olympics, in 2000. Anky is the record holder for the most Olympic wins in dressage and can be seen here wearing a traditional shad belly, more commonly known as a tailored riding jacket with tails. The jacket is typically worn over a vest or a false vest (a partial vest bottom is stitched into the jacket lining) in summer months with points of contrast color that pop out from under the jacket. Traditionally the vest points were canary yellow; today other colors are being worn as a point of aesthetic individuality.
Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain celebrates her gold medal victory at the 2012 Olympics in London, England. She is one of the few dressage riders who prefers to wear a protective helmet over a traditional riding top hat and is an advocate of rider safety. As we learn more about sport-inflicted concussions, more riders may wear safety helmets.
Swimming was introduced as an Olympic sport for women in 1912, in Stockholm.
Although the New South Wales Ladies Swimming Association (Australia) was originally opposed to women swimming at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Fanny Durack (right) paid her own way and won the first gold medal in the 100m event. Early swimsuits worn by female athletes were typically a one-piece tank or short-sleeved construction made of wool knits and including an internal brief covered by a thigh length skirt or short construction for modesty.
Ethelda Bleibtrey, an American who grew up with polio, was the gold medal winner of the 100m in 1920 in Belgium. In just eight years, the swimsuit worn for Olympic competition has evolved quite a bit: lower necklines, little or no shoulder coverage, shorter hem lengths and the addition of federation crests on the center front of the suit.
In 1932, the Olympics were held in Los Angeles, and the 100m female gold medalist was Helene Madison of the United States (pictured on the right). By this time the swimsuit has fully evolved to a tank construction (no more shoulder or arm coverage) and hip length. (Concerns of female modesty were less of a public issue by 1932). Also note the evolution of the swim cap—it is now made of rubber and more form fitting to the head, enabling the athlete to be more hydrodynamic.
Australian Dawn Fraser at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. She is a three-time gold medalist in the 100m, winning medals also at the Melbourne and Tokyo Olympics. The swimsuit continues to become more streamlined, as seen here with a deeper neckline and now a hip hugger length.
The modern era of competition swim suits debuted in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics. The suit seen here on gold medalist Inge de Bruijn (Dutch) is based in the science of hydrodynamics. The suit’s components—cut, body coverage, materials and seaming—work together to assist the performance of the swimmer.
In 2008, 43 world records were set in the sport of swimming, possibly due to the evolution of the competition suit. Manufacturers started making full body suits (ankle to shoulder coverage) with more buoyant materials that reduced drag in the water. Britta Steffen was the gold medalist at the Beijing games—she is wearing a full suit that was designed with a technology that provides graduated compression on certain parts of the body and proprioceptive feedback to enhance hydrodynamic performance. Because of the performance advantages that these suits gave athletes, new rules were created stating that “No swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device or swimsuit that may aid his speed, buoyancy or endurance during a competition.”
As a result of the new competitive swim suit design rules set by FINA (Federation Internationale de Natation), the suits worn by female athletes, like gold medalist Ranomi Kromowidjojo (Dutch) for the 2012 London Olympics, only covered from the knee to shoulder (as opposed to the 2008 suits that went from ankle to shoulder). They also did not have zippers (banned in 2008). The most recent design is said to compress the body into a “torpedo” position.
Like athletics, women’s gymnastics was introduced at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.
The first female gold medalists in gymnastics was the team from the Netherlands in 1928. The leotard was cut a lot like the swimsuit of the same time, with a top with short sleeves and skirt bottom.
Larisa Latynina of the Soviet Union competes on the vault at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne Australia. The leotards worn for gymnastics is also very similar to the swim suits worn by women at the same time. Constructed of natural fibers, with a V-neck and low hip cut, the leotard was belted to accentuate the waist.
Věra Čáslavská of Czechoslovakia (center) at the medal ceremonies at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Leotards worn here were quite simple, with just a federation crest on the center front.
Věra Čáslavská of Czechoslovakia at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. At this Olympics she won her second gold medal. The leotards of this decade took on fashionable details of clothing worn by everyday women, like the collar and neckline details seen here.
Montreal Olympics darling Nadia Comăneci observing the results of her performance in 1976—where she received a perfect 10.0 score. Notice how her leotard was seamed together to shape to her body and the federation colors (stripes) were also stitched on.
Mary Lou Retton (United States) celebrating her gold medal victory at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Material and printing technologies allowed leotards to fit tighter (with the use of spandex), have less seaming and create better visual interest (in this case with the stars and stripes). These technologies allow for the product to be lighter in weight, have more flexibility and better fit.
Simona Amânar (Romanian) competing on the balance beam, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She took home the gold medal for the all around. Notice the stitched striped embellishments in federation colors across the leotard—a departure from the prints we have seen in the last few Olympics.
Receiving her all-around gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens is Carly Patterson from the United States. Notice the introduction of stone embellishments on the uniform. These embellishments help enhance the experience of watching the gymnast as the stones flicker when the gymnast is performing.
Gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas (American) at the London 2012 Olympics, competing on the uneven bars. You can see how the leotard has evolved from a few stone embellishments to one with wholly high shine that emphasizes her incredible speed and motion by flickering when performing.
It was not until the 1964 Tokyo games that volleyball debuted as an Olympic sport.
The first gold medal in women’s volleyball was awarded to the Japanese national team in 1964, on their home turf at the Tokyo games. The team’s uniforms were comprised of high collared T-shirts with contrast trim at the neck and sleeve hem and shorts.
In 1968 we start to see the slow evolution of the women’s volleyball uniform into the modern era. The collar lines drop slightly to enable neck motion and breathing and the short length moves up to hug the hip. Here we see the uniforms of the Soviet Union and the U.S. in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where the Soviet Union took home the gold.
At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the Cuban women’s national team earns gold in a 3-2 match against Russia. The hip hugger brief becomes an optional piece, and some players choose just to wear a tight-fitting leotard/unitard. Here we also see the evolution of the traditional color blocked trims at the neckline and sleeve to color-blocking accents at the yoke of the unitard.
Chinese national players celebrate their gold medal win at the 2004 Olympics, in Athens Greece. Color blocking on the uniform continues to evolve at the yoke and underarm panel.
Tumbling in jubilation, the Brazilian women’s volleyball team celebrates their gold medal victory at the 2012 London Olympics. You can see how the uniform has evolved subtly, with the key changes mostly in material weight, flexibility and uniform fit. The contrast trim details seem to revert back to the ’60s and ’70s.
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