The Gay Games don’t start until August, but the Winter Olympics don’t know that and the irony is touching. Russia’s government has criminalized “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” and yet the quilted, rainbow-rash ski parkas on the volunteers at the Sochi Games would move any LGBT group to approve … of the accidental statement. As for the parkas themselves, they’re just as hideous as most of what the athletes wore this year. But there’s an optimism in how the puked-up pattern looks on television — a happiness. It brings a tear of progress to your eye.
Nonetheless, more than one of the volunteers has been quoted hating on the coats. A story in Sunday’s New York Times, by David Segal, found a young man who kept his brown jacket close at hand, for a kind of national security. I can’t blame him. These aren’t clothes you wear unless you’re cold and have no other choice. (Mr. Brown told Segal he’ll keep his only as a souvenir.)
You look at these parkas — which are by a Russian clothier with an Italian name, Bosco di Ciliegi — and with temperatures reaching into the 50s, you wonder whether they’re overkill. You also wonder whether “propaganda” means something different from what it used to. Like maybe “gay”? The opening ceremony stationed bored-looking young men around the stadium. They wore loose gray pants, large vests of faux polar bear fur, and matching oversize hats. With utmost lethargy, arms were flung, legs were bent, and the faces remained set at “I’m so over this.” Yes, these were the 2014 Sochi Dancers. But weren’t they also the tweakertainment at some Siberian disco called the Plow?
By taking this stance on so-called nontraditional sexual relations, Putin’s government has done a fascinating service to these Games. Suddenly we’re all close readers and studious unpackers — grad students armed with Glamtazers and steeped in Twitticism, looking for meaning in the meaningless. Take those volunteer jackets. They’re gaudy above all else. That Times story was actually about Bosco, whose designer dismissed any association between social politics and his clothes. (The jackets, in fact, were inspired by Russian folk patterns.) But under the politicized circumstances — and in the classic spirit of responding to abstraction — the jackets seem open to interpretation, and some of those interpretations detect a wink.
All Bosco wanted to wink at was Russia’s flair for the drab. They also wanted to correct it. Good for them. There was nothing they could do, however, to install some sex into the winter wear. Who could, really? You don’t look for sex in these clothes. You look for smart, wearable solutions to the problem of cold. You look for innovation. You look for fun. And sometimes you find something like Tonga’s three-quarter-length parkas with the big Polynesian palm trees down the middle. They were just as busy as the Bosco parkas, but they worked from the world’s living rooms and sports bars. You didn’t have to guess what the point was: Come to Tonga!
Before the Games, there were complaints about Ralph Lauren’s uniforms for the U.S. team: white pants and big, star-spangled sweaters with a lot of activity on the front. And it’s true they seemed instantly commemorative. But you know what? In that stadium, under those lights, the too-muchness of those sweaters was just right. The stars knitted across the backs took on lives of their own, standing out against the Russian surroundings like the glow-in-the-dark stickers still on the ceilings of some childhood bedrooms: emblems of whimsy and innocence, impossible to scrape off completely.
Japan had the brilliant idea of eliminating the bulk of a traditional parka, but did no one see all that white and ask, “Does this coat make me look medical?” The resulting effect was that of 100 or so very happy doctors marching toward a contagious disease. France offered smart practicality: parka as blazer, parka as wrap sweater, parkas over khakis and white sneakers. It was fashion, sure. But it was also work.
This isn’t to say sex was nowhere to be found. Mexico sent about five people, one of whom was the flag-bearer, Hubertus von Hohenlohe. He’s a 55-year-old alpine skier, photographer, pop singer, and prince. He’s in Sochi to compete. But before Russia treated the world to a grand, redacted history parade, Prince Hubertus had already won. He arrived in a zip cardigan with white piping at the cuff, on the elbows, and around the pockets. It had the right mix of “hit the slopes” and “hit on you” that you expect from the all-fun, all-the-time Italian apparel company Kappa. Von Hohenlohe used his free hand to wave and smile like a beauty pageant contestant. Also: He plans to ski in a Kappa mariachi-print spandex onesie. Photos of him posing in it are part comedy, part OkCupid, part Olympic gold.
Some of us say we watch the Olympics only for the figure skating. Some of us are lying. Some of us watch the Olympics to see the figure skater Johnny Weir. He’s not competing this year, so NBC, in a burst of inspiration, snapped him up and put him in a booth with Tara Lipinski. Lipinski does color commentary. Weir does Technicolor commentary. He’s dressing to match, too. He’s loading his Instagram page with his outfit of the day — and he started strong, in fur coats and Louboutin shoes and leather Rick Owens pants and a long golden pearl necklace.
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People are saying that if Vladimir Putin were serious about a crackdown on gays, Weir would be serving a life sentence by now. But his crime, inasmuch as there is one, wouldn’t be for homosexuality. It’d be for closing the gap between Kim Kardashian and Dorothy Zbornak. Men’s figure skating is like the Fashion Week of the sports world: insanity that’s hard to find on the street. Weir and his peers redraw the lines every four years. It’s how the LeBron Jameses of the world know how far might be too far. The glory of Weir is that too far isn’t far enough. Even in the booth, he’s still competing. But the other guys in the competition seem to know he’s watching.
For Saturday’s short team skate, the living Russian legend Evgeni Plushenko wore black, as he usually does. This time, the front plunged down his front and twisted down to just above his right hip. The flesh-tone fabric didn’t quite match his skin — not even George Hamilton could get that tan. There was an obligatory smattering of sparkle, but on one side of the gash was a sliver of white. On the other was a splotch of sequined red. On a less lethal skater, the getup would have played like a phase of the moon and the leavings of a messy hot dog. But with Plushenko, this was an act of violence. He skated like the movie poster he was dressed as: Psycho ’14.
Italy’s Paul Bonifacio Parkinson trains in Colorado Springs, Colorado; he placed 33rd in the 2013 World Championships. For the team free, he, too, wore black and went with a plunging front. His approach was more evening gown than cut-your-throat. The three hits of blue provided a fine accent, and the sequined ribbing along the sleeves was pretty. But the blue leaf that went across his back and sideways around his waist, and created the illusion of a sash, coming together in a silver lamé flower and tassel that flew when he leapt? It took the elegance too far toward the red carpet. Parkinson didn’t medal, but he should take heart in the knowledge that he also came dressed to accept the Oscar on behalf of Hilary Swank.
Tatsuki Machida from Japan skated to Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” which allowed the skater to indulge his sense of literalism. His costume was covered in red Muppet fur. He looked like he was selling Tabasco. Really, Stravinsky provides the sort of attacking astonishment (still!) that should bring out the best in someone like a Plushenko, but might be too subtle for a man who skates to something called “The Best of Plushenko.”
Figure skating is a constant reminder that in sports, there’s always some new sartorial frontier in need of shattering. The other day, Kevin Reynolds of Coquitlam, British Columbia, skated to “Excelsius” by Larry Groupe, and he did it in blue fabric that swept scalloped across his front and ruched at the right shoulder. On either wrist were longer bracelets that some people might use to deflect lasers and bullets. Rising up from the blue was a thin white top with a short sleeve cuffed in gold at the center of his left biceps. There was some visible piping topped on his chest with an embroidered insignia. His short hair had a little body and some tousling.
It’s as if he were wearing the start of an evening gown and the beginnings of a male god’s outfit. NBC furnished no cutaways to Russian officials, but Reynolds’s elvish androgyny was surely against the law somewhere. He was Hera on the one hand, Hermes on the other, and a silver medalist on both. I wish he’d have seen the whole thing through and skated in a Greek skirt or full toga. He went instead with dark-blue pants, which lent him an ordinariness. But we were told he’d been plagued with equipment trouble. I’m hoping the pants were a last resort. But this is where the sport is right now: tastefully out of its mind. Weir didn’t call the event, but you could feel him somewhere in Sochi, scheming a way to get an illegal outfit back on the ice.