Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On berets, red felt poor boy caps, and mittens

Ryan Lochte (Swimmer) in Ralph Lauren 
Last week, American sports wear giant Ralph Lauren was raked though the mud (most hilariously by Fox news ... I mean, Gretchen Carlson is right, "beret" sounds way too "French") for outsourcing the production of  their Olympic wear. That's right, even though Ryan Lochte looks preppy and All-American in the ads, the items were all "Made in China." A slap in the face to American industry? Absolutely. But Harry Ried's (very reasonable?) call to burn everything and start from scratch was perhaps a tad impractical given that the games are literally around the corner. Though the furor that emerged does bring up some interesting questions about the commercialization of nationhood as well as the branding involved in patriotism and the Olympics. 

The choice of Ralph Lauren is an interesting one because its aesthetic has always been "preppy" (NB: American Prep is synonymous with the "Sloane Ranger" in UK") and its clothes out of the price range of most people. By donning these uniforms, Team USA is projecting an image of America that only a select privileged cadre of people actually experience. I know everyone summers in the Hamptons now but really? What message does this send to the plethora of other groups in the United States that count themselves proudly as Americans? Is this all about style and no substance?

Canadian athletes were first dressed by Roots Canada Limited for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. Roots, founded in 1973, began making leather footwear in Toronto. The brand has since widened its reach to luggage, fashion accessories and active wear that all evoke a specific image of life in the Canadian wilderness. It is an image that the founders created based on their own camping adventures in Algonquin Park. So, think beavers, canoes, log cabins, and plaids worn by burly lumberjacks. Think cozy. Think rustic. In 1998, the company gained international exposure with those red felt poor boy caps. Remember those?!  I remember being on a 4 week wait-list to buy our hats! Those red hats and patch-covered letterman jackets were a phenomenon and skyrocketed a moderate sized Canadian retailer to global stardom overnight. They were even making Olympic kits for Team USA (2002 & 2004) and Britain (2002). Scandalous! Do all Canadians camp? No. But, the symbols Roots collected in their vision of "Canada" were relatively benign. And it's hallmark items are all made here. More importantly, Roots' overall style is much more low-key, which is something with which Canadians can relate. Roots has been unabashed about the "I love Canada" ethos behind their brand and consumers have happily bought into that.

The ubiquitous red felt cap Image from
And what about the Brits in 2012? Stella McCartney, in partnership with Adidas, is responsible for the home team's uniforms. Is Stella McCartney the most natural choice? She does have impeccable pedigree. And, she is definitely a shining example of a great generation in British fashion design. But, why not Burberry, Barbour, or (the Duchess' favourite) Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen? What makes Stella McCartney's designs uniquely representative of modern Britain at these games? Shouldn't the athletes be wearing a lot of Scottish wool, deerstalker cap, and Hunter wellies? Crude stereotypes, I know. I wonder whether this McCartney gear is all "Made in Britain." I'm sure Boris is on top of all of that ... right IdleHistorian? Would Britons be up in arms if it were revealed that the items weren't produced in British factories ... or is that terribly un-British

Andy Murray, Tennis
What each team wears and the symbols used to represent a country at the Olympics is integral to creating national identity. Consumers are actually buying (into) tokens that represent national pride and patriotism. Some countries seem to understand this better than others.


I have always been a big fan of the Roots Olympic gear, and I will wear my 2002 Salt Lake City Games merch with pride at the Olympics this year. (I mean, it's still the same country, right? It's not like they changed the name or anything. This whole buying new gear every Olympics thing is firmly overrated. I'm going retro and cheap. There's a recession on! End of aside.)

My big bugbear with the Canadian Olympic Committee is that they have disastrously given the official-clothing-maker contract to the Hudson's Bay Company, a company which couldn't possibly sound more Canadian, but is in fact owned by American Target.

Fits like a glove

So sign me up right there next to the congressmen making a fuss about Ralph Lauren's athletics wear being made in China. The Hudson's Bay Company doesn't come close to representing "Canadianity" in the same way that Roots does. Plus their lame red maple leaf mittens are no where as cool as the Roots beret in its heyday.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

On London 2012 & patriotism

Boris in Beijing 2008

With the Olympic games coming up in London 2012, we here at Love (...) in a Cold Climate will have much to muse upon. I thought I'd start things rolling with an informal discussion on "Britishness" and identity. As @IdleHistorian has mentioned in a previous post, when Canada hosted the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, we celebrated the successes of our athletes with such gusto that we managed to change a lot of minds regarding our "niceness." It's hard to forget all the flag-waving (I'm sure there's video evidence of the entire country cheering when Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal v. USA in the hockey gold medal gameor Nikki Yanofsky's "I Believe" on repeat for 14 straight days (NY's song still triggers a Pavlovian response of tears and swelling pride in me. Congratu-well done CTV). While others grumbled, many in the Canadian media were unashamed of the overt expressions of patriotism. In fact, the consensus seemed to be that those two weeks in February became a pivotal moment in nation-building. Canada emerged from a games with greater national confidence than ever before.

Will we see the same sort of unabashed chest-beating to "Rule Britannia" in August? Will Great Britain emerge from the games refreshed and feeling "all in it together"? It's hard to say. From the moment Boris Johnson received the Olympic flag at the 2008 games in Beijing, the public/ popular discourse seemed to express a sense of dread for 2012 more than any other sentiment. The chorus of doubters predicted doom. How would everyone cope with the eternal queues at Heathrow, the increased traffic congestion, and what exactly will the games cost? Many of these anxieties are on display in the BBC series Twenty Twelve starring Hugh Bonneville (who plays the frustrated and ever diplomatic Ian Fletcher) among other stellar cast members each skewering an aspect of the (poor?) planning and (dis-) organization that goes into making the games possible. It's a sentiment that is so well known that they even penetrated American pop culture as seen in an episode of 30 Rock where Wesley Snipes (Michael Sheen) revisits (reluctantly) his "settling-soul mate" Liz Lemon because he can't face returning to London for the Olympics. 

Are those who are anxious/ grouchy about the Olympics the same contingent that grumble whenever the royals decide to celebrate lavishly a birthday/ wedding? Or, is this like complaining about English weather? If the forecasts are correct, there will be a great deal of talk about the "rainy isles." Is this about managing expectations? Or, is the general population actually quite happy to have the world descend on the capital for two weeks? It will be interesting in the coming weeks to see the narratives that are constructed because, unlike Kate & William's wedding or the Jubilee, the Olympics steer the attention away from the upper echelons of British society to that of ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary feats. What image of Britain/ Britons will be on display? How will these Olympic games change those images for years to come?


My friend brings up many excellent point about how British character is intersecting with the Games in very interesting ways. (I particularly enjoy "Wesley Snipes" from 30 Rock ...)

I do think that grumbling and a general Eeyore-ish attitude are classic British. However, in reading the news as of late I note that there are many of the same complaints that riddled the pre-Winter Games here in Vancouver in 2010: corporate intrusion and copyright issues, worries about traffic gridlock and resentment at the special lanes devoted to VIPs and Games participants, concerns over security, general preparedness, and the readiness of the venues and logistics. There have also been some unique challenges in the UK - the security debacle with the private firm G4S and the weather to name only two. It all provides the British with reasons for even more hand-wringing; an excuse to decide ahead of time that it will all be rubbish and to make a joke of it. (See this episode of the great BBC segment OddBox about the rather fun Chap Olympics. One of the participants explicitly repeats the received wisdom that Brits are "rubbish" at real sport and therefore must succeed at making humour of it.)

I don't believe the whole enterprise will be rubbish at all, but the British compulsion to disavow all that is too earnest or serious, and to make a joke of everything, is deep-seated. As SloaneScholar1 reports, this approach was evident from the first instance of Boris Johnson's appearance in Beijing (apparently discombobulating his hosts with his unbuttoned suit and the famous disheveled hair). We won't try too hard, was the general feeling, but we will have fun and eccentricity and put a truly British stamp on the proceedings. And why not? "Team GB" may even manage the very unBritish feat of excelling at sport.

One cannot end such a post with anything other than a video of Boris Johnson proclaiming that "wiff waff is coming home to Britain":


The Great Exhibition of 1851 is often featured in history books as a singular event that showcased Britain’s pre-eminence on the global stage, while reflecting the state and character of the nation. (Spoiler alert: Britain was imperial, modernizing and ambitious. Oh, and obsessed with free trade capitalism, and not wild about the poor.)

Will future historians use the London Games in the same way? When scholars interrogate and mine this event to learn about the culture and politics of Britain in 2012, will this be they’ll find?

A reluctant patriotism?
Are celebrations of Britishness doused by a general feeling that it is rather ‘American’ to be overly ‘sentimental’ about such things, or is it the ghosts of imperial past that make chants of Rule Britannia seem inappropriate? The Royal Wedding and Jubilee saw Union Jacks out proudly, but those symbols are in keeping with monarchy in a way they have begun to conflict with ‘nation’ – especially as ‘Team GB’ contains three separate nationalisms.

A sense of nation may not be as strong now as in 1851, but neither are the actual workings of the state to physically pull these Games together.

Government Inadequacy
The security failings by the Home Office that have come to light this week are absolutely staggering. After seven years of planning and millions of pounds spent, two weeks out from the Games there are reports of MASSIVE failings in security. After being rushed in from other departments to ease the massive immigration queues at Heathrow, new Border Patrol agents have failed to screen active terror suspects. The Guardian reports that they missed as many as five in one day of actual (not test!) screenings. The G4S debacle would be comical if it wasn’t so potentially dangerous. But the biggest nightmare of all is the impending transport apocalypse that is about to descend on London. One minister said that it would be like 16 consecutive days of New Years Eve, football finals and Royal Weddings.  This can only have a dousing effect on Olympic festivities, and should lead to many outcries about how a system that already operates at nearly peak capacity was expected to cope with such a massive influx of athletes and tourists and journalists. Seeing the ramp up in transit usage two weeks out from the Games has turned me from excited ticket holder to firm believer that Tessa Jowell is The Biggest Moron Ever To Sit In A Labour Cabinet Ever for actually thinking London could host an Olympics. The infrastructure simply cannot cope.  

When the world comes to London, they may just find a city stretched to the brink.

London’s confused twenty-first century identity
I think they will also find a few different Londons competing for definition. There’s the Victorian skeleton of a former-imperial metropolis, an extraordinarily vibrant multi-cultural and multi-ethnic cosmopolis, and a busy hub of neo-feudal, global capitalism.

Whoever selected the terrible LOCOG logo seems to be trying to align the games with my favourite London: the multi-cultural cosmopolis. It kind of looks like it’s supposed to be a graffiti hash tag? Kind of? The fact that it resembles not much of anything points to the difficulty of defining contemporary London. Vancouver used the Inukshuk as its symbol (conveniently overlooking the repression of the native culture that created it) to represent Canada’s history of friendship. But London 2012 doesn’t want to be tied to a lion or union jack or any other symbol of obvious patriotism, it is a place with new ideas and new art and new cultures emerging out of the collision of old ones. Except that every time I look at the logo, I don’t get a sense that it is a genuine reflection of this spirit of the city.  I see the spirit of The City. I imagine a room full of corporate group-thinkers deciding, “Hmm, this looks new and different, and maybe even passably vibrant. This is the deliberate, generic brand we want use to market our city for global consumption.”  

And this is the side of London that will seem preeminent during the Olympics. The vehicles of corporate sponsors will be seen whizzing by the plebs in the designated Olympic Lanes, army officers will confiscate your off brand snacks and gear and credit cards at entrance gates to events. Pubs using the words “Summer” and “Olympics” in their sidewalk signs advertising that the games are playing inside will be liable to suits from theIOC for copyright infringement, and British chips will not be sold on Olympic grounds because they infringe on the rights secured by McDonalds to be the only fried potato vendor on the planet.

With the ominous Shard looming over London, there will be no confusion about who owns this city.

And with that… I’m going to try cheer up before I go see tennis at Wimbledon and get to stuff my face full of corporate sponsored strawberries & cream.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Happy Canada Day !!

We're all lumberjacks and that's OK

It's Canada Day!! On July 1, 1867 the British North America Act united Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province on Canada into one entity under the British Empire. How do we celebrate the birth of our nation: street hockey, competitive maple syrup guzzling (for those looking to avoid a diabetic coma, can I suggest swigging some wines from the Dan Aykroyd collection), laying about at someone's cottage, and lots of fireworks.

Official celebrations in Ottawa will include the Prime Minister and other noted officials and a parade of every living Canadian cultural icon. Last year, of course, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stopped off in the capital for the festivities and everyone was seemingly mad for monarchy. However, in most instances, there is scant evidence of Canada's historic ties to the Empire in our celebrations. Rather, we celebrate the tapestry of cultures and peoples that come together through the course of Canadian history. Because, if grade 10 Canadian history taught me anything, it's that there is no one distinct Canadian identity (despite what Stephen Harper's Conservative government says)! This Canadian will be spending the day listening to the Crash Test Dummies (Mmmmmm), watching SCTV re-runs, and consuming a giant tub (trough) of poutine (Canada's national dish: fries, gravy, cheese curds ... bacon optional).

Our friend H (@Culture/Gatherer) has recently quit our shores for her paternal home of Blighty :) We miss her already. But, her perspective abroad will no doubt benefit our endeavours on this blog.


It is Canada Day, and the Idle Historian is already exhausted before the celebrations have even begun. But a few thoughts: one would light-heartedly point out that the Brits generally tend to consider our patriotism and our expressions of national identity as a wee bit, well, "cute." "Oh look at the colonials with their canoes and Mounted Police and their own country..." Of course this is preferrable to the charge of being "jingoistic" that was leveled at us during the 2010 Winter Olympics by at least one columnist in The Guardian. This was due to the touted "Own the Podium" program and the enthusiastic masses who took to the streets daily and nightly in Vancouver, clad in red and white and singing "O Canada" rather more than was strictly necessary. Taking a contrarian view of the whole episode, I merely thought it rather amusing that we had apparently gone from cute lumberjack bumpkins to world-class jingoists in one fell swoop.

I think, actually, that most nations have their moments of surging, loud, boisterous patriotism. This includes the UK - in evidence recently during the Diamond Jubilee and, I suspect, during the upcoming Summer Games. As long as it remains a positive, innocuous, and celebratory experience, these sorts of feelings make us human - wherever we may live. So today - Happy Canada Day! Vive le Canada.

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