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Olympic Uniforms Edwardian Style

Monday July 23, 2012

Reading a recent Financial Times article on the design of the various Olympic team uniforms for this year's Olympic contest prompts me to consider how far things have developed in a hundred years.

Back at the first London Olympics of 1908 there was no talk of designers but the sporting uniforms of the various nations did raise some interest in the British press.    At the opening ceremony on the afternoon of Monday, 13 July, 1908, each competitor was invited to parade in 'the athletic costume of his country, or of the sport in which he intends to compete.'  (They were mostly "he"s in 1908.   Only 44 women competed.)

In 1908 the modern Olympics were in their infancy.  The first London Games were only the fourth of the modern series.

The 1908 Games were the first at which athletes could compete only as part of a national team.    It was this "national team" aspect that suggested the uniforms.  

How each team paid for any uniforms is shrouded in mystery.   Olympic athletes were all supposed to be amateurs and amateurism was supposed to mean you paid for everything yourself.   However, in 1908 national team uniforms began to emerge.

This was the first Olympics at which the American Olympic Committee sent their team of 122 athletes with an official national uniform.


Here is US marathon runner, Johnny Hayes, wearing some of that uniform which was described in the New York Times as being white with a trim of red, white and blue stripes down the outer trouser seam, white jerseys with a United States emblem on the chest and a blue cap with the same repeated in a badge.


The Illustrated London News published photographs of various teams marching in the opening ceremony.  

The Swedes supplied the third largest contingent of athletes to the London Games of 1908.   (Their Crown Prince was a crucial supporter of Baron de Courbertin's vision in the early days of the Olympic revival.)   Sweden had military conscription at the time and British commentators were impressed by the close marching and neat appearance of their athletes in their naval style uniforms.  (Note the line of officers in full military rig complete with plumed helmets and swords.)

The Canadians, despite representing a British colony, were allowed their own national team.  (Unlike the Irish, who were not happy about having to compete under the British flag.)  The Canadian team wore white flannels, white cricket caps and cable jerseys with a maple leaf badge:


The French - who supplied the second largest team that year - only paraded 27 of their athletes at the opening ceremony.  They marched in kepis, knee-high boots and figure-hugging jersey.

Team GB were not quite so uniform.  Conformity was not a British virtue at the time.  We had 736 athletes in team GB in 1908.   200 of them were led by an Oxford Blue, a Cambridge Blue and a former member of the Eton Eight.    (In the desperate dash to get the Olympic show on the road, the minutes of the British Olympic Association note that in the week before the opening ceremony they were still awaiting delivery of 500 caps sewn with a Union Jack badge on order for the GB team.   All 200 parading in this photograph have their caps.   Surely missing 500 team beanies couldn't be why the rest of the team didn't parade...?)


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