Tokyo Olympics: The Men Wore Skirts

At the Opening Ceremony, did the finest male athletes of the world show the rest of the blokes watching on TV or their smart devices that skirts do not choose the gender of the wearer?

Tonga’s flag bearers Malia Paseka and Pita Taufatofua in national costume, together with their skirted team mates. Photo: Getty Images

Tokyo 2020 in 2021 is strange enough; the Olympics opening ceremony unveiled in a quiet Tokyo Olympic Stadium without spectators (the few who there could not really be seen) is downright eerie. To make matters worse (is that an appropriate word?), the Parade of the Nations segment of an already watered-down Opening Ceremony—with its tradition-meets-contemporary, Harajuku-meets-Sensoji (understandably not-quite) mass display—was just that much yawn-inducing. And weird. Who were these participants waving to, many so enthusiastically? And what (or who) were they filming with their phones? Were they really that happy to walk (or dance) into the US$1.5 billion stadium (designed by Kengo Kuma, not Zaha Hadid, as originally planned) with unmistakably quiet, empty seats, some 68,000 of them? And why were some of the Parade of Nations participants allowed to go mask-less during what was feared to be a “super spreader event”? Were we too observant?

For an Olympics Opening Ceremony this low-key, attention naturally turned to the participants/athletes, or what they wore as part of their national costumes, or, for many, uniforms during the Parade. Sure, this is no Miss Universe pageant (although the Cook Islands did put their female flag bearer, the swimmer Kirsten Andrea Fisher-Marsters (in a floor-sweeping, fish-tailed gown that, according to local media, was valued at NZD1,500 or SGD1,422), but there were countries that still aimed to impress. But many of them probably knew this was not going to be a ramped-up Rio 2016, given the situation, and, up till four days before the grand event would open, the Tokyo organising committee’s chief Toshiro Muto announcement that the city did not rule out even an 11th-hour cancellation of the global sporting showpiece if more athletes tested positive for the virus. Could this be why many nations were not dress to impress? Even the delegates of China, outfitted by a team from the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, looked astonishingly bland, especially when their own sports megabrand Li-Ning is making waves in the fashion-sphere.

Vanuatu’s flag bearer Rillio Rii in coloured grass skirt. Screen grab: Mediacorp

Reportedly, thirteen countries sent only two athletes to the Games. The smallness of those contingent meant we did not register and remember what they wore, but for many other nations, their athletes came dressed with layered festive cheer. It is amazing that Tokyo’s summer heat did not seem to bother them. They didn’t look bothered to us. That evening, our Google Assistant told us that it was 27 degrees Celsius in Tokyo, but, we guessed that it probably felt like 30℃ and above. The Japanese capital is known for its unbearable summer temperatures and humidity (yes, worse than our July/August highs). Many journalists, too, had earlier wondered how the athletes would deal with the punishing heat. Yet, some participants, such as those from Puerto Rico wore three-piece suits! In fact, the blazer—now appropriately referred to as the ‘sport coat’—was an extremely popular garment, never mind the setting: a stadium. Two nations did stand out for their distinctly different outers: Costa Rica chose the safari jacket, interestingly in navy and belted too, designed by compatriot menswear tailor Fabrizzio Berrocal, while Columbia picked the very Japanese yukata, with prints of “national flora”, produced by the 34-year-old local bag and accessories brand Totto.

Some nations were just a lot more practical than others, attested by the omnipresence of shorts, especially bermudas, which where worn by the small contingent from, where else, Bermuda. In pink, no less. The Australians were in shorts too, so were the Austrians, and at least another two dozen countries. Our own team SG did not turn up in the national dress of T-shirts, shorts, and slippers. Predictably, they wore blazers in hongbao-worthy red and what appeared to be chinos of khaki from the darkest end of that colour family (described more appetisingly by our media as “latte”), designed by uniform maker Esther Tay. Doing away with the full National Day look was, perhaps, deliberate, as the Singapore National Olympic Council probably didn’t what the team to appear similarly dressed as those from other contingents, such as China or Monaco. Did our athletes look good? Did they stand out? Were they in any best-dressed list? Best left unanswered.

Flag bearers of Tuvalu, Karalo Hepoiteloto Maibuca and Matie Stanley in grass skirts. Photo: Getty Images

Although the turn-out for the Parade of the Nations of the Opening Ceremony was a mixed bag—some dressed as athletes, others as flight attendants, bank clerks, nurses, even like our Safe Distancing Ambassadors!—memorable were the many men who appeared in non-bifurcated bottoms. In fact, what was spectacular were the skirts sported on the male athletes and officials, worn unselfconsciously. Most outstanding was Tongan star Pita Faufatofua’s (taekwando/rowing) traditional Tongan dress of a tupenu (a kin of what we recognise as the sarong) and taʻovala (a mat made of plant fibre that is typically wrapped around the waist)—a combo worn on formal and semi-formal occasions. On his upper body, he wore only body oil (coconut, we were told). Not to be outdone were his team mates, dressed in skirt-like tupenus of dark grey and topped by shorter, fringe-, zig-zag- and scallop-hemmed taʻovalas in the colour of straw. Although the Tongans were a small team, they made a striking sight.

As it turned out, it was quite the competition of the shirtless and the skirted. This was Mr Faufatofua’s third scene-stealing appearance at the Olympics. But, this year, he was not without serious sartorial match. Vanuatu’s Rillio Rii (rowing) was just as shirtless and just as gleamingly oiled. He wore a traditional, multi-coloured, striped, ankle-length grass-skirt (rather than the famous namba or penis sheath of the tribes people of the island), and he looked a lot more dashing than some of his trouser-wearing fellow athletes. Another grass-skirt wearer (but not entirely topless) was Tuvalu’s Karalo Hepoiteloto Maibuca (athletics), who wore a titi (skirt) on top of which the more decorative, paneled te titi tao was laid upon. His fellow flag bearer Matie Stanley (athletics) wore a similar titi, showing the world that skirts really recognise no gender. Surprisingly, there were few sarongs worn. The team from American Samoa, therefore, set themselves apart with black, knee-length versions paired with what were the handsomest holiday shirts of the night. And those, for whom the sarong is acceptable attire, chose something far more skirt-like. Team Malaysia’s traditional kain samping (a short sarong) in untraditional graphic print, conceived by the Design and Art Faculty of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, was worn (or looked) very much like a cheer leader’s skirt although the National Sports Council of Malaysia insisted that it is kain samping.

Fiji’s flag bearers Taichi Vakasama and Rusila Nagasau in long dresses. Screen grab: Mediacorp

Team Burundi’s Belly-Cresus Ganira in traditional gown-like garb. Photo: Getty Images

Apart from the thwabs of the Middle Easterners or the boubous (long tunics) of the Africans (including Liberia’s Telfar Clements-designed, calf-length-and-below sports jerseys), there were those men’s styles that were rather dress-like. Fijian flag bearer Taichi Vakasama (swimming) wore a traditional column dress with fringing, all made from a local reed called kuta. From Burundi, Belly-Cresus Ganira (swimming) and his fellow male athletes wore a decidedly modern-looking, chocolate-brown-with-white-polka-dot, floor-length pagne, a wraparound garment (or, possibly, the more formal imgega), topped with a short cape, placed fetchingly askew. We thought Mr Ganira looked rather dapper in his traditional dress. These athletes stood out not only because of the perceived feminine style of dress they adopted or that they were willing to go against global athletic wear conventions (not regional or local), but because of the surprising freedom with their choice of clothes in the traditional power structure of the athletic world, as well as its attendant institutional and cultural bias. This is no less pronounced even if, among this Olympics’ three core concepts, there is the yet-to-date call of “accepting one another”.

And these men’s choice of clothes also showed that there was no need for a famous designer to design garments that would capture the imagination of the world watching from digital devices across the globe. Team USA was outfitted by Ralph Lauren (since 2008!) and the contingent, bursting with spurious preppiness (striped T-shirt, navy blazer, denim jeans) showed why American fashion is in unceasing decline. These clothes were communicating New England summer, circa 1985! But perhaps, more annoying was the oversized, kiasu Polo logo on the left pocket of the blazer—brand recognition or a reminder that Polo the sport is largely played and enjoyed by wealthy white individuals? Or, that the game was not included in the Olympics since 1936? If some Olympians could adopt fashion in non-gender-binary terms, perhaps many more could also not seek security behind the sport coat, especially those marked by a white man riding a horse, holding up a mallet—all in total white. Could this also be what author David Goldblatt—quoting the “godfather” of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin—referred to as the “display of manly virtue”?

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