It’s tempting to think that the replica football kit has been around forever. Truthfully it’s a bit more recent than you might think and a lot more recent in terms of the adult replica, which has only gained prominence in the last 30 years or so. Whilst its popularity has continued to grow over the last few decades, especially as trends in both football culture and fashion have changed, it has paved the way for the replica shirt to become a much-loved terrace staple.
Up until the late ‘60s, fashion was conservative and formal. Shirts, trousers and coats were worn nineteen to the dozen. Think Peaky Blinders and you’ve pretty much summed up fan attire of yesteryear, there certainly weren’t any football shirts to be seen on the terraces. Back then you couldn’t even get hold of a shirt unless you played for a team.
Originally kit manufactures were few and far between. Bukta was the main one until Umbro came along in the 1920s, and even when other manufactures set up shop, suppliers usually only sold in batches. Teams didn’t have any specific kit deals with manufacturers either, and suppliers would often change throughout the season.
It wasn’t until 1959 that first replica kit came about, courtesy of Umbro and aimed at children. Umbroset as it was known, came as a boxed kit, compromising of a shirt, shorts and socks. Attractive wording such as ‘dress like your heroes’ and featuring images of popular players of the day, such as Matt Busby and Denis Law were all used to appeal to children. It wasn’t until Admiral entered the sportswear market and started manufacturing kits that things began to take off.
In ’73 Admiral struck up a deal with renowned Leeds manager Don Revie to initially produce their away kit. Admiral took advantage of the newly introduced ‘Design Copyright Act’, which prevented other manufactures from reproducing it, ensuring an authentic and exclusive kit. The deal was worth £10,000 and kick-started a revolution. A year later they produced the England kit and by the late 1970s, 84 out of the 92 League teams had similar deals in place.
Although clubs now had exclusive kit deals, replicas were still only being marketed at children, and as a full kit. Although a turning point came when in the 1977/78 season, Admiral released a new advertising campaign and for the first time showed replica shirts worn with jeans. This way of styling a shirt was much more casual than previously showcasing the full kit. Meanwhile, the adult replica still wasn’t fully available, the closest you could get was a shirt in a similar design and colour to your team but without the club badge.
In 74’ a photograph emerged showing two adults wearing Newcastle shirts at the F.A Cup final against Liverpool. It is thought to be one of the first photos showing adults wearing football shirts at a match. Although not an authentic replica as it is widely thought that the shirts are homemade. The shirt featured Newcastle’s iconic black and white stripes and placed in the middle of the shirt was the club crest.
Back then it was tradition to wear fancy dress to cup finals and the two blokes might just have been doing that. As an adult, unless you were playing football the only other time the kit was seen was on a child. It would still take more than another 10 years before they were worn regularly and authentically to the match.
Things started to change from the 1980s onwards. First up was the ’82 World Cup; when the England kit was mass-produced in adult sizes for the first time. It was stocked by the popular menswear shop, Burtons. Most high streets had a Burtons at the time, making them more accessible to purchase, but uptake was still slow.
As replicas had been advertised to children for so long, they were generally seen as something only the youngsters would wear, but fashion styles relaxed during the ‘80s and sports clothing was now an acceptable form of everyday wear. The potential stigma of adults wearing a replica had eased, and lots of adults who wore them as children wanted to continue with tradition, and the trend for adult replicas was gaining pace.
During Italia 90’ for the first time, thousands of England fans were spotted wearing the England national team shirt. Over the next few years, adult replicas gained in popularity. The newly created premier league in the 1992/93 season included huge tv deals, this intern produced lucrative kit deals.
Football was riding the crest of a wave with these new revenues and the retail side of the football was also expanding rapidly. Where you once sourced replica kits from independent sports stores, club shops now opened up within stadiums, making it even easier to get your hands on the current seasons’ shirt.
Since the ‘90s, replica shirt sales amongst adults as well as children have continued to boom. Manufacturers have taken full advantage of new fabric and printing technology. This has resulted in a complex and intricate kit design. Umbro and Adidas along with many others, took full advantage of this, with neon colours and crazy pattern designs. They were a popular shirt to acquire and in the ‘90s you didn’t have to look far to spot one.
In another bid to make the replica kit even more authentic is the ability to have your favourite players name and number printed onto the shirt, (or your own if you prefer). The introduction of badges on players shirt sleeves are another option, all at an additional cost of course.
Manufacturers have also introduced third kits, seldom worn by the team but still available to purchase. In another bid to become more inclusive, female sizing options were introduced as a way to attract more women and girls to purchase shirts. These finer details have helped to keep the replica market growing.
With the popularity of the replica continuing to grow, fans are usually at the forefront of kit design. If we aren’t happy with the look we are less likely to buy and sales go down. Manufacturers don’t always get it right though. Such instances include Tottenham’s 2002/03 kit, designed to be tight-fitting to show off a players physique, except it wasn’t so flattering on fans who weren’t slim and athletic looking, especially those who indulge in one too many pies and pints. Needless to say, tightly fitted shirts aren’t a popular choice.
In the last few years, nostalgic and retro kit trends have been sought after, with clubs asked to recreate firm favourites from years gone by or to bring back a specific manufacturer. As the nostalgic trend continued to grow, online retailers specialising in sourcing and selling retro and sought after kits have sprung up rapidly. Clubs have been keen to not miss a trick and regularly rerelease retro kits to entice more purchasing especially if it is linked with winning a title, an anniversary or an iconic design.
There is a downside to manufacturing deals, with the most lucrative deals reserved for the top teams. These will usually get a bespoke design, leaving the many smaller teams receiving a template style kit and fans are left remarking on how similar kits end up looking.
In the 2017/18 seasons, all three of the Birmingham and Nottingham Forest kits were very similar especially Forest’s away kit which was navy blue and very much a carbon copy of Birmingham’s’ royal blue home shirt. Birmingham’s red third kit, again was similar to forests home kit although Forest’s did contain a pinstripe and both teams also sported a white kit. It didn’t help that the two teams had the same sponsorship logo too. Another example is in the 2018/19 season, Barcelona’s training tops were identical to Tottenham’s third kit with only a slight colour difference.
Despite there being many smaller kit manufacturers who would be more than willing to give a bespoke design service, it seems the majority of fans would prefer a household name. Despite the apparent grumble that comes with similar-looking kits, it’s all in social standing; your team can still be placed in high regards even if they are not a ‘big’ club if you can get big-name manufacturer on board.
Although the replica kit wasn’t quick to get off the mark, once it finally did, it went gone from strength to strength. The replica kit has turned into a billion-pound industry. Whilst it may not appeal to all fans to be seen in club colours it has certainly created a whole lot of fans that do.
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