How football shirts became a canvas for pop art and politics
Football is having what the fashion world might refer to as “a moment”. It’s not about the big, shiny, important stuff, like Ronaldo’s delts or Pogba’s hair, but instead a nostalgia for the football of our youths, as played by humble journeymen and home-grown boy wonders. The Class of ’92. Fiorentina’s Nintendo sponsor. Maradona’s curly locks.
And so, for the first time in a long time, football shirts are cool again. But not in the way you might imagine. You might have noticed that when the England team was delighting their supporters at last year’s World Cup, scores of their fans chose to wear kits from decades gone by, rather than the latest, official, Nike edition. Most were from the Nineties.
The grey one Gareth Southgate wore to miss that penalty at Euro ’96, for example. Block colours, big stripes, geometric magic-eye patterns, surplice collars and voluminous sleeves. Technically speaking, they pale in comparison to the featherweight, wicking pomp of modern football shirts. But boy, are the latest strips dull (a third of the shirts at last year’s World Cup were plain red.)
“Recently, I think kit design has become a little stale,” says Scott McRory, who manufactures unofficial football shirts under the brand name Killa Villa. “If you look through Neal Heard’s book A Lovers Guide to Football Shirts, you can see just how unique some of the kits were back in the day. That is something I’d really like to bring back.”
McRory takes a blank stock kit from a big sports brand and turns it into a fictional team strip based on a hip-hop reference. His latest design is an homage to Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan, but in the past he has nodded to Biggie Smalls, The Dead Presidents and The Streets. The latter was a skew on a 1998 Birmingham City strip.
In Germany, as founder and creative director of Fokohaela, Jason Lee, works from a different perspective. His shirts are super-graphic love letters to the teams and players they salute. He makes a psychedelic take on an Arsenal shirt in dedication to the “Iceman” Dennis Bergkamp; above the Emirates sponsor logo it says “Don’t fly”, in honour of the Dutchman’s refusal to board a plane. He creates not-for-sale one-of-ones, too, which deeply frustrates his fans on Instagram. The Eric Cantona/Enfant Terrible/Manchester United/Boy Scout shirt is a thing of arcane footballing beauty.
The movement—or perhaps we should more correctly call it a league as it features such brands as Romance FC, Nowhere FC and Insurgent Ballers Club—has a wry eye. London-based Acid FC imagined a shirt for the EU national team (just think of the squad!), and they are selling a scarf with an “excited” Maradona motif.
“Football shirts are the most democratic clothing garment on the planet,” says Dan Sandison, founder of Mundial magazine. “They break down barriers of nationality, language, politics. It’s such an easy form of self-expression.” To that end, it’s perhaps not surprising that so many people view the football shirt as a canvas for pop art. And what better culture to mine than one that offers decades of sorrow, ecstasy, skulduggery, romance, retribution and famous men in badly fitting shorts?