Before sitting down to write this, I took a quick look at the garments hanging in my closet. My shirts, skirts, slacks and dresses were made in India, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and, of course, China. Mostly China. Only one item — a Land’s End denim shirt I swiped from my husband — was manufactured in the good old U.S.A.
My closet is probably much like yours: Western fashion stitched together in foreign factories. Industry experts estimate that as much as 98 percent of what we wear is made abroad, mostly in Asia, where labor is cheap enough to offset the cost of transporting these threads halfway around the globe. Frankly, I hadn’t noticed. When it comes to clothes, I fret over washing instructions, not manufacturing sites.
But the uproar over Team USA’s uniform for the London Olympics’ opening ceremony sparked my interest in the geographic origins of our sartorial choices. Ralph Lauren designed the blue blazers, white pants and cute berets our athletes will be wearing when the 2012 games open next week, but those preppy, all-American outfits were manufactured in China. This has ticked off some people. And though I think the outrage may be misplaced, I can understand why a “made in China” label fits a bit tight around the neck.
This is the Olympics, after all, an event where national pride is on display. While making a few hundred of these uniforms at home wouldn’t have budged the unemployment rate, a “made in the U.S.A.” label on the red white and blue would’ve struck a patriotic note, especially these days when outsourcing jobs is considered both an economic threat and a political embarrassment. Think of it as a symbolic planting of the flag.
Offshoring the production of Olympic outfits is nothing new. U.S. teams wore Ralph Lauren uniforms made abroad for the 2008 Beijing games and the 2010 Vancouver games. And back in 2002, torchbearers from the United States donned outfits made in Myanmar. Yes, that Myanmar, the pariah state with a ruthless military junta. Most of us, however, didn’t hear much about that.
But this is an election year. Job growth has been slow and the economy sluggish, at best. Learning that our athletes are wearing outfits made in a country notorious for not playing fair in the trading arena is like taking a finger jab to the eye. Ouch, double ouch — but blink, blink, blink, we’ll survive.
Some elected officials, eager to score easy political points, have turned the Olympic uniform brouhaha into a cause célèbre. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, suggested the uniforms be piled up and burned. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, said the Olympic committee should have known better.
Well, maybe it did. The Chinese-made Olympic uniforms, as many have pointed out, are an example of the deep reach of global trade, a system so intricate and intertwined that consumers no longer know the origins of what they buy. Something is invented here, manufactured there and marketed somewhere else. In fact, Chinese athletes probably trained on American-engineered equipment with U.S.-designed shoes.
At the Olympics, a fashion statement entertains the audience for a mere second or two, the time it takes for a gymnast to stretch between the parallel bars. But in the end, the medal count — the number of golds, silvers and bronzes — is the measure that matters.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.