The soccer kit is not just the uniform that a soccer team wears when playing. It means so much more and has evolved from its humble beginning in much the same way as the soccer boot. Beginning life as a simple top to help distinguish one team’s players from the other team, the soccer shirt has become a piece of design and innovation and more importantly to soccer fans across the globe – a fashion accessory.
When soccer became an organised sport in the mid 1800s, the formation of the English Football Association brought many rules to the previously anarchic sport. However, uniforms or kits were not one of the early rules as players generally wore whatever they liked with a coloured cap or scarf used to distinguish themselves from other players. Soccer in England was played mainly by wealthy gentlemen who were financially able to purchase a suitable shirt in their club’s colours – with plain white t-shirts the most popular kit due to its ease to obtain and being relatively cheap.
In a handbook published in 1867, it was advised that ‘if it can be previously so arranged, to have one side with striped jerseys of one colour, say red, and the other with another, say blue. This prevents confusion and wild attempts to wrest the ball from your neighbour.’ However, from the inception of the Football Association in 1863, it still took over a decade for soccer kits to appear and become a regular part of the game.
The first kits that appeared were generally taken from public schools, with teams such as Blackburn Rovers adopting the colours initially of Cambridge University as many of their players were former students. Many of the original kits were garish and brash, shown by Reading’s use of a salmon pink, claret and blue uniform – a million miles from the simple royal blue and white of today.
As the sport moved away from a middle class hobby and became popular as a working class occupation, the kits were to evolve with the sport itself. Individuals would no longer be responsible for providing their own uniform, as clubs began to adopt specific colours and provide the kit for their team to wear.
Association football became increasingly popular with spectators and so the soccer players’ attire was to be affected to improve the ease of viewing. This led to the abandonment of bright, gaudy colours in favour of distinctive primary uniforms to enable viewers to easily identify their team from a distance.
As the game evolved, the equipment used also changed, with the invention of shin pads by Sam Weller Widdowson in 1874. His use of cut down cricket pads outside of his stockings would also evolve into smaller pads worn inside the socks, a more familiar concept to the modern-day soccer player.
Shorts and socks were not considered a part of the team’s kit until around the turn of the century. In 1901, new regulations were introduced making socks officially part of the strip as well as so-called ‘knickers’ not being required to be lower than the knee leading to the ‘soccer shorts’ that we see today. It was in the first twenty years of the 20th Century that the soccer kit of today really began to take shape.
Forty years on from the first soccer kits, and with association football becomingly increasingly popular in the UK, soccer kit styles became more fashionable and design-conscious in the early 1900s. Popular shirt designs included the eternal favourite of vertical stripes, although the pinstripe of the 1800s was replaced with a wider stripe. The First World War prevented the UK soccer league from continuing from 1914 until the competition returned in 1919.
Between 1919 and the next suspension of professional soccer in 1939 with the outbreak of war with Germany, kit innovation had slowed down and the most notable change of the period occurred in the 1930s. Collars replaced crew necks and shorts were no longer plain with the inclusion of stripes down the side of the leg. The most influential change was shown by north London’s Arsenal when their kit had red shirts with contrasting white sleeves, a design that is still their home kit to this day.
Another introduction that appeared in this period was the introduction of shirt numbers, experimented with by Arsenal before becoming more common in 1939 before the Second World War. Numbers would go on to play a significant role in the merchandise sales of shirts in the latter part of the 20th century, but were used initially to allow easier identification of players.
After the end of World War II, rationing would play a major part in the development of soccer kits. Clubs would struggle to replace old kits due to clothing rations and so would play in the same kits for years or borrow full strips from other teams, including rugby clubs. KIts began to keep a level of consistency and teams opted to maintain a specific colour uniform which would become associated with their club.
The baggy, loose-fitting shorts of the early parts of the century were gradually replaced during the 1950s when kits became more streamlined to aid speed and agility of players. This change in style and design coincided with the European influence on the previously English-dominated sport as soccer started to evolve into a worldwide phenomenon.
The 1950s saw the introduction of the European Cup, renamed as the UEFA Champions League, won for the first five years by Spain’s all-white Real Madrid. As the game became publicised through the popularity of both club and country competitions, television also introduced soccer to a wider audience across the world. The sport gained followers from many countries and backgrounds and so the players’ attire and the players themselves took on the role of soccer icons.
The arrival of the swinging 60s brought a new type of soccer player to the public’s attention as the sport’s popularity reached unprecedented highs. The club game was full of well-supported teams including the red of Liverpool and the black and blue stripes of Italy’s Internazionale. Alongside the club game, the FIFA World Cup brought a whole new level of interest with the global superstars of the Brazil squad including such greats as Pele and Garrincha.
The popularity of the sport, combined with the new levels of skill demonstrated by some of the new stars of soccer ensured that team kits would need to be as eye-catching and iconic as the players. With television coverage increasing, soccer teams would have to improve the quality of their kits as a symbol of the success and skill that the team possessed. Clubs would begin to realise the potential of a commercially appealing soccer kit in the future, and this belief began to take shape as the 1960s rolled on.
The 1960s saw the arrival of football superstars like George Best, raising the profile of the game to encompass more than just fans of the sport. Often referred to as the ‘fifth Beatle’, Best would be symbollic of the new appeal that the modern 60s soccer player had in society. Best’s fanbase extended past the Manchester United fanbase, in the same way that David Beckham’s celebrity status would engulf the world thirty years later.
With the new soccer celebrity, clubs would realise the commercial potential of their assets and would develop their kits and sales techniques to achieve maximum financial benefits. It wasn’t until 1975 that the first official shirts went on sale in England when Leeds United launched the first ever replica kit. The shirts were made by Admiral and featured a club badge, consequently raising the price for supporters wishing to wear their team’s colours. Previously able to buy a generic white shirt, Leeds fans would now have to spend more than twice as much money on the official replica shirt.
The arrival of the replica kit would have the biggest impact imaginable on the evolution soccer kit. Club badges would become a marketable aspect of the kit, with clubs seeking to register the copyright to protect their investment. Kit makers such as Admiral, Bukta and Umbro would waive their fees for producing the kit in return for a cut of the profits generated by shirt sales, a commercial practice that continues to this day.
Another practice that would enter the soccer kit design would be the introduction of shirt sponsors in the late 1970s. Initially, clubs would show the name of the kit manufacturers, as demonstrated by the first UK club sponsor of Hibernian FC with shirts showing Bukta on the chest. This quickly evolved into a marketing strategy for both club and sponsor, with the soccer team earning substantial financial rewards for advertising the sponsor’s name.
Kit sponsorship remained conservative in the UK, with teams only allowed to display one sponsor up until the 21st century when restrictions were stretched. Clubs would print sponsors on their shorts as well as on the backs of shirts – although this had been common practice in countries such as Mexico for years. Mexican club sides would display three or four sponsors on their shirts, often with two or three individual company names solely on the shirt’s front.
The 1980s saw a trend for slim-fitting shirts and smaller shorts, epitomised by the all red Liverpool kit worn by such Kop legends as Dalglish, Rush and Hansen. These kits gave way to the baggy, retro look of the 90s that was introduced when the Premier League was launched in 1992. Bold colours and unusual patterns were often chosen, sometimes as a second or third kit with a traditional design as the club’s main uniform.
Squad numbers were used by Premier League clubs in another attempt to boost revenue from shirt sales, as popular player’s names were blazened across the backs of supporters in the stands. With so many kits available for each club, shirt sales became a major part of the soccer club’s economy and so regular changes occur to boost club funds and profits. It is not unusual for a club to release two or three different shirt designs each year in an attempt to capitalise on the soccer shirt’s commercial draw.
So what does the future hold for the soccer shirt? With skin-tight lycra, baggy-retro look, sleeveless shirts and animal prints all making an appearance in the last 150 years, the possibilities are endless. As new fabrics, designs and styles become popular, the soccer shirt of the future holds so many possibilities.