Most of us these days have at one time or another owned a football shirt or two. Currently, kits have never been so popular, be it the current season or sought after retro ones. The colours and fabrics that kits are now made from have come on leaps and bounds in a short space of time.
Unsurprisingly football shirts haven’t always looked the way they do. What might come as a surprise is that in England at least, football wasn’t always a working-class sport. Football at first had commonly been played by public schools. The middle and upper classes could afford a tailor to have their kits made and in matching sets, all in an array of interesting and expensive-looking colours. At this point, kits were usually worn with matching caps/hats and cowls.
Many football teams derived from cricket, with football teams set up as a result of cricket clubs looking for a sport to play in the winter months. As more working-class teams got involved, anything and everything was worn due to the high prices of colourful kits. Cricket whites were also a popular choice to wear to cut down on cost and paired with coloured items like caps, scarfs and sashes, as a way to identify their team from the opposition.
As football progressed into a professional sport, it became the responsibility for the club to issue kits. Previously it had been up to the individual. During 1891, Wolves played Sunderland but confusion ensured when both teams turned out in the same kit design. This led to the FA introducing the rule that clubs had to register their colours along with insisting that all clubs have a white change of kit in the event of a clash.
Shirts initially were called jerseys and they were tight-fitting and made from knitted wool material. On the flip side, shorts were long and loose. Victorians upheld a conservative nature and shorts had to cover the knee. Popular designs during this period included hooped and plain shirts, then stripes, which were said to make players appear taller. The end of the 1800s saw half kits become popular along with the harlequin kit with four separate panels.
Whilst now we are familiar with goalkeepers wearing a different colour shirt, back then, they usually wore the same as the rest of the team. In 1909, new rules required goalkeepers to wear alternative colours but choices were limited to red, white or blue and eventually green, something that remained unchanged until 1980. In 1921, a slight amendment was made that during international games yellow was to be worn by goalkeepers. The ‘keepers’ shirts were originally heavy knitted wool jumpers, which meant they were not only heavy when wet, but stretched too.
In 1928, Arsenal and Chelsea were two of the first teams in the league to start wearing shirt numbers. During 1933, numbers were used for the first time in the FA Cup between Everton and Manchester City. Everton adopted 1-11 with City wearing 12-22. By the 1939-40 season, numbers were mandatory. Unfortunately, this season ended in abandonment when World War Two broke out.
After the war and with rationing still in place, clubs appealed to supporters to help raise funds to kit their teams out. During this time shirts were mostly long-sleeved featuring collars and plackets similar to rugby shirts. Flannelette was the material of choice and tops were long. The England shirt was so long that nearly a third of the shirt was tucked into the shorts.
In the ’50s, Umbro introduced shiny synthetic silky looking fabrics. Bolton became one of the first teams to debut this expensive-looking kit in the FA Cup final. Soon after Umbro unveiled their ‘continental’ kit, inspired by European clubs, featuring short sleeves and v-necks. The England team kit had remained largely unchanged since the 1900s but even they succumbed to this new European style.
The ’50s also saw the introduction of a second set of change kits, now commonly known as a third kit. Even if the shirts were different, teams that had the same shorts or socks as each other were required to turn out in a different combination, thus avoided confusion during play. A decade later saw numbers on shorts as well as shirts. Overall kit designs became sleeker and more fitted, complete with crewnecks. The length of shorts meanwhile was on the rise.
The introduction of floodlights caused several clubs to abandoned their traditional colours in favour of white due to how dazzling the lights made the kit look. Coventry was one such team who briefly flirted with white but eventually reverted back to sky blue, this time in an all-matching ensemble prompting the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool to follow and debut single colour kits.
In 1969, Aston Villa introduced a collared shirt with a V insert. This new design detail inspired nearly every club in the league to wear a variation of this. This went on to prompted other clubs to experiment with design variations using their traditional colours including Birmingham City who released a much-coveted penguin strip.
Kit design changed drastically in the ’70s and Admiral was the brand responsible. They employed a designer fresh out of design school who brought a new and modern approach to kit design which arguably still inspires kits today. Admiral was also the first kit supplier to utilise copyright legislation to create manufacturing contracts.
Queens Park Rangers became the first team to wear a kit supplied by a foreign brand, choosing German giants Adidas. This would mark the start of a love affair with clubs and fans alike. Not only is it a sought after kit supplier but Adidas has firmly cemented itself as a terrace fashion staple.
Kettering Town was one of the first to don a sponsorship logo on their shirt, unfortunately, the FA didn’t approve and they were forced to remove it. Eventually, the FA backed down and whilst Derby became the first team have a deal in place, the shirts with the sponsorship logo were only worn for the official team photo. Liverpool was eventually the first football league team to wear sponsorship on their shirt under FA approval. Ironically that year Kettering failed to find a sponsor.
The introduction of manufacturing deals in the ’70s saw a kit design span five years on average. By the ’80s, this was down to two. Advances in printing technology meant designs could be directly printed on to the fabric, opening up the design process further. By the end of the ’80s, kit design went crazy. Abstract designs that included splashes, waves and geometric designs becoming all the rage. One other thing that stood out during the ’80s was the shorts. They were now so short they wouldn’t have looked out of place on a volleyball team.
Complex and innovative kit design became the norm by the ’90s and a wide range of colours had entered the mix including neon. The creation of the Premier League also saw player names on the back of shirts for the first time, with the overall style of kit becoming loose and baggy.
Umbro took it upon themselves to be inspired by historic kits and brought in details that hadn’t been seen since the Victorian era, including lace-up necks and grandad style collars, the latter of which suited the Newcastle kit well.
One notable colour that had been absent in football kits was black. Black was reserved for the referee and linesmen. However, rules were relaxed allowing the officials to wear other colours, paving the way for clubs to wear an all-black kit for the first time, with both QPR and Manchester United leading the way.
Kit design became simpler towards the 21st century. The emphasis was now on fabric technology. Sweat-wicking, reversed seams, mesh panels and undershirts were introduced.
Shirts styles are once again fitted and with the popularity of the adult replica they are designed to look good on players and be appealing to fans. Shorts, meanwhile, are modest compared to the ’80s coming to an inch or two above the knee.
In the last 20 years, one stand out colour is pink. Often worn as an away kit and usually partnered with a charity. This has gone on to spark many charity kits, along with limited edition designs. Meanwhile, the last few years have seen a resurgence in more abstract kits but with many clubs restricting this to the away or third kit.
Overall the silhouette of kits has changed very little, long sleeves or short, fitted or baggy. It’s the styling, colour combination, patterns, and fabrics that keeps changing. The intrinsic thing about kit design is that it forms a unique part of the club’s history. Whilst a club isn’t a club without fans, it also isn’t a club without its colours.
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