How The Olympic Dress Codes Vary For Men & Women

by Ione Gamble

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are well underway, and while many of us are enjoying watching the sports as they go down, the games — and the question of whether Olympic dress codes are sexist — have arguably come under more scrutiny than in previous years. Perhaps due to our heightened awareness of social politics and the rise of Fourth Wave Feminism, more questions are seemingly being asked concerning the differences in treatment between competing men and women. But while certain uniforms worn by female athletes, as compared to those of their male counterparts, seem to suggest the perpetuation of sexism within Olympic dress codes, the truth is that dress code regulations are a lot more complex than they might initially seem. And furthermore, certain male-oriented dress codes seem just as skin-baring as those of competing women.

Much of mainstream media, as well as Olympic commentary itself, has come under criticism for its arguably sexist coverage of female athletes — much of which seems to center around the physical appearances of the women involved. We've witnessed everything from ageist comments — like when a South Korean TV network proclaimed that one 28-year-old female judo competitor was “old, for a woman” — to speculation on the love lives of women competing — like when The Korean Times ran an article debating how tall volleyball player Kim Yeon-koung's boyfriend should be and suggested that, due to her taller-than-average height, "It would be better for her to look for a boyfriend somewhere outside the country." Even the female commentators themselves, and more specifically their choice of dress, have come under the fire of patriarchal, sexist slurs. UK presenter Helen Skelton, for instance, has been criticized for showing "too much leg" and "too much shoulder."

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With all of this misogynistic content, criticism, and commentary flying around our news feeds, it's difficult not to question the nature of the games themselves. While it may be nearly impossible to determine whether the Olympics as an institution are sexist, as opposed to the world's media industry, or our attitudes towards women as a society in general problematic, the question of whether the actual games play into these sexist narratives is an important discussion to have nonetheless.

While sexism in sports often comes down to the sexualization of female athletes, I'd argue that we need to talk about the differences in uniform between male and female athletes altogether, and dissect whether the official codes of dress perpetuate the sexist coverage surrounding the sports.

So, first thing's first: The Olympic team uniforms are different from what the athletes actually wear while they compete. The official uniforms are only worn during special events, like the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

Many countries use the team uniforms as an opportunity to join up with an important designer hailing from their home country. The U.S. team's uniforms, for example, have been designed by Ralph Lauren since 2008. Other notable designer pairings include Stella McCartney with the UK, H&M with Sweden, Lacoste with France, and Emporio Armani with Italy.

How formal the teams get for each event is totally up to the country. Stella McCartney's offering for the UK veer more towards sportswear, whereas the United States' team uniforms falls in line with Ralph Lauren's preppy aesthetic.

This year, Lauren opted to clothe both the male and female athletes in exactly the same outfits: Blazers, boat shoes, and a shirt that was mistaken by many as depicting the Russian flag. While other countries (Brazil, for example), chose dresses for the ladies, it seems like an important step to dress both sexes in the same attire.

Previous games, such as the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, have seen the U.S.'s female athletes donning skirts instead of trousers, however, and serve as proof that Lauren has not always taken this inclusive approach to designing the uniforms. However, the past few Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies — such as Sochi's 2014 Winter Olympics, the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games — prove that Team USA has suited up in the same garments regardless of gender.

Unfortunately, even if the costumes are getting more inclusive, it remains obvious that we still live in a time during which our culture regularly chooses to comment and criticize female athletes based on their appearances, often reducing their talents down to their physical looks. In Aug. 2016, for example, Fox News aired a segment debating whether or not female athletes should wear makeup while competing. Despite not specifically referencing makeup in the Opening Ceremony looks, Team USA's choice to not facilitate such a discussion by not overtly sexualizing or othering its female athletes indicates steps being taken towards holding both sexes to the same standards.

When it comes down to the nitty-gritty of the competing looks during the sporting events, however, governing bodies for each individual sport dictate what each gender group is or isn't allowed to wear. The extent to which they differ, vary between each type of game. Some sports maintain little or no differences, while others are extensive.

The Olympic Games aren't yet devoid of dress code-related controversy, of course. Most recently, discussions have arisen surrounding certain countries being unable to participate in the games due to some dress codes not allowing for modest wears (such as Islamic head scarves).

Such concerns were expressed regarding the sport of competitive soccer during The 2010 Youth Olympic Games, when governing body FIFA's dress codes initially ruled out Iranian women from competing due to a ban on head scarves within the official uniforms. These rules are thankfully nowhere to be found in the 2016 FIFA Regulation Handbook for the current games.

The banning of head scarves wasn't gender specific, though. FIFA's condemnation of the attire went across the board, with the FIFA Regulation Handbook at the relevant time simply outlining that players' uniform must not "have any political, religious, or personal statements."

However, due to the fact that religious head scarves are traditionally worn by Islamic women, it's important to remember that they were the ones most affected by the ban — despite the eventual overruling of it shortly after the initial controversy in May 2010. FIFA has not yet responded to Bustle's request for comment regarding past and present dress code regulations.

Progress in this department might actually be happening across the board. The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), for instance, changed its beach volleyball dress code in 2012. Where the rules previously used to state that women competing in the sport on any level (including The Olympics), had to wear either a bikini or bodysuit (excluding those with cultural or religious reasons), the guidelines were expanded to make room for the option of either a sleeveless or sleeved top and shorts, making the sport more inclusive overall.

As reported by Huffington Post, an Australian government-commissioned fact sheet on "sexploitation" in sports in 2012 condemned the differences between male and female athletes uniforms prior to the change in rules, stating: "Women’s beach volleyball [...] has introduced uniforms intentionally to focus attention on the athletes’ bodies rather than for any technological, practical, or performance-enhancing reasons. Women must compete in bra-style tops and bikini bottoms that must not exceed six centimeters in width at the hip (men compete in shorts and singlets)." FIVB has not yet responded to Bustle's request for comment regarding previous and current dress code regulations.

While these important conversations are being had, many dress codes still appear to differentiate between the sexes — though it's not always women who have to show more skin. Yes, female gymnasts wear solely leotards to compete while their male counterparts are permitted to layer shorts or long leggings over their outfits. But in sports such as swimming, men are the ones who have to show off more.

Swimming's governing body Fédération Internationale De Natation (FINA) outlines that male competitors are required to bare more skin than women. For male swimmers, swimwear is not permitted to cover anything past the belly button or below the knee, whereas women are allowed to cover the area from their shoulders to just above the knee. FINA has not yet responded to Bustle's request for comment.

The guidelines outline that, from 2010 onwards, "swimwear for men shall not extend above the navel nor below the knee, and for women, shall not cover the neck, extend past the shoulder, nor shall extend below knee. All swimsuits shall be made from textile materials."

When it comes to swimming, one might argue that emphasis on male swimmers' chests might be playing into traditional tropes of masculinity. A muscular chest is often considered an appealing or desirable trait in male-identifying individuals, whereas musculature in women — according to society's beauty ideals — is nowhere near as traditionally "desirable."

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The Fédération Internationale de Gymnastiques (FIG) guidelines concerning trampolining also cite notable differences between the sexes. In basic trampolining, the code states that women must wear a "leotard or unitard with or without sleeves (must be skintight). Long tights may be worn (must be skintight and be the same color as the leotard). Any other 'dress' which is not skintight is not allowed." For men, the code requires "sleeveless or short sleeves singlet. Gym trousers (in a single color, except black or any other deep dark color), or gym shorts."

Where the female code explicitly outlines a necessity of tightness, no such clause exists in the male one. The rules simply state that men must wear "gym trousers or gym shorts." In the same sport, however, the code outlines that men are not permitted to cover their arms and have to wear a "sleeveless or short sleeve singlet," while women are allowed to wear leotards or unitards "with or without sleeves."

The same governing body's rules for Aerobic Gymnastics (the sport in which competitors perform high intensity patterned movements to music) give men five different options — three leotards/unitards (all sleeveless or short sleeved), a tank top and shorts, or a tank top and three-quarter length trousers, with no sequins allowed. The female athletes are mostly free to choose as they please, and are allowed to cover up their entire arms, legs, and wear sequins. Women must wear flesh-colored tights, while men can keep limbs bare. Makeup "must only be for women and used sparingly."

Despite the differences between male and female uniforms throughout each various sport, FIG's vice president Slava Corn tells me via email that "there is no issue between the genders at all." Instead, she notes that "the purpose of the rules is to provide a style which enhances the body and allows the best movement."

Corn also cites that it is not just difference in uniform between male and female competitors that is considered, but that "religious or any other slogans are forbidden. We expect all outfits to be in good taste and set properly for the athlete to have good movement in competition."

Ultimately, it seems as though a priority in the rules is for uniforms not to distract from the sport at hand, with Corn further saying, "There is a restriction on the number of advertising spaces and the positioning of the manufacturers logo. There is no restriction on the national identity, but it must be aesthetically presented. The design is open for the federations to be creative, but must be in good taste."

Corn does, however, note that "the tight requirement is for safety. Since they move so much we cannot have a piece of material impede their movement or possibly cause an injury."

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There are undoubtedly gender-based differences in everything from media recognition of athletes to the amount of hype surrounding women competing in the games. Despite the fact that women are often seen wearing more revealing or extravagant outfits, our society's reaction to them, by large, actually feels like an indication of a culture ingrained with misogyny, as opposed to sexism within the Olympic Games as an institution.

It's seemingly simple for folks to criticize women based on what they wear. But while the requirement of high-cut leotards and bikinis may not help the cultural sexism at hand, competing men don't really have it much easier when it comes to what they have to wear while participating in their sport.

There are still fights to be won in terms of broadening dress codes to include individuals of all nationalities and religions. But unless we standardize all outfits to become gender-neutral across every sport, misogynist media takes will likely always find a bone to pick with women putting themselves out into the public eye.

One thing is for certain: Olympic dress codes are complicated regardless of your gender identity.

Images: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP, Buda Mendes, ODD ANDERSEN/AFP, MARTIN BUREAU/AFP, Ronald Martinez, THOMAS COEX/AFP, AFP, ATTA KENARE/AFP, Jamie Squire, Alex Livesey/Getty Images (10)