Rachel Jansen looks back at the history of football fabrics, from the shirt we are familiar with today way back to the 1800s.
It’s fair to say that one of the vital aspects of a football team is the shirt they choose. When compared to other aspects of a kit it’s definitely the most noticeable feature. A team’s shirt showcases a style which reflects the squad, whilst also allowing supporters and players to recognise who’s on a certain side.
Throughout the years there have been many styles and fabrics incorporated into football shirts. It’s amazing just how far they have come.
Although the creation of football is thought to date back to ancient China, it first became an organised sport in the Middle Ages. It was a far cry from what we’re all used to today. There wasn’t any rules, so you’d have no teams, one ball, and hundreds of people trying to kick it. It wouldn’t be unusual for there to be deaths during these games.
Football was taken by undergraduates to their various universities. This marked the start of the very first football clubs. Students quickly got fed up of there being no guidelines, so in 1848 Cambridge University created a set of rules that were fairly basic. As primitive as they were, these rules inspired and shaped the football rules we see today.
Although the rules were created about the gameplay itself, there was nothing about uniforms; resulting in players turning up in their own clothes. To help spectators differentiate between teams, players would wear a hat, scarf or sash that followed a certain colour scheme. A typical selection of clothing would be cricket whites due to it being cricketers that were playing these games.
The early 1800s saw the formation of clubs that still play in today’s modern football leagues. Hallam, Sheffield and Notts county are regarded as the oldest football teams in the world. At the time inter-club games didn’t exist yet, so games would only be between players in a specific club.
Leading players from various clubs decided they wanted to take football to even greater heights, so in 1863 they worked together to create new rules and form the Football Association. They were incredibly successful, and less than ten years later the English FA cup was created. It was the first time rules affected every football team, and it actually helped kickstart the idea of football kits.
A Birmingham newspaper wrote an article on how tough it was to differentiate between teams from their clothing, and the FA responded almost immediately. As of 1870, uniformed football kits were made mandatory. An individual club’s kit colours would be associated with the university, helping to identify them as being from that institution. The shirt of this time would be a jersey complete with standard, non-specialised headgear.
At the time, professional football was only played by men who were minor aristocracy or upper middle class, meaning that they had more disposable income when compared to lower classes. Because of this, they would go to their own preferred tailor to create a football kit. This caused problems, as no kit looked exactly the same.
Although football is a game that is now enjoyed by people of different classes, it wasn’t until the 1860s that the working class had the opportunity to take part. Because of the increase of interest in the sport, the company Bukta seized the opportunity and became the UK’s first sports wear manufacturer.
Jerseys were still a popular choice of shirt, and you could expect close fitted knitted fabric without a collar. A lot of team preferred to use a guernsey, especially during colder seasons, due to it being heavier and offering more insulation. This type of clothing was commonly used by anglers and quickly adapted for football.
Choice of shirt came down to the players in a club, and they would generally choose to wear something that was affordable to allow anybody to get involved. A good example of what you could expect in this time is Burnley’s shirt choice in 1884. It was around this time that the clubs were given responsibility for every player’s shirt.
An event that had a massive impact on football kits was the Wolves vs. Sunderland game in 1890. As the players went out to play the game everyone realised they had identical kits on. This sparked the decision for teams to register their kit colours, so they would never have a problem like this again.
1891 saw Aston Villa showcase their own unique design that became the norm for well over 60 years. Claret Jerseys, full sleeves with a neck band, they were well received by the majority of people, and it was normal to see teams following this trend.
In the 20th century, a rise in the number of supporters also saw a greater demand for more football games. Clubs started to realise durable shirts were also important, so they used tough yet heavyweight materials such as cotton and wool.
Referees and supporters struggled to identify goalkeepers when they were grouped with normal players, so in 1909 a rule was made stating they had to wear a different shirt. At the time, they would wear a wool sweater which kept them warm even if they had to stand still for long periods of time. It’d be normal to see goalkeepers with flat caps, ensuring the sun was out of their eyes.
Once the Second World War ended, a rule was introduced meaning that players needed a unique number on the back of their shirt. It was tough for clubs to implement because ration coupons were still mandatory, but supporters worked together, donating theirs to support their own club.
In the nineties, football changed completely. A lot more money was involved through sponsors, seeing smaller clubs grow and use kits which were of the highest quality. Nylon and polyester mesh were used to create a shirt which didn’t feel uncomfortable after a full football game.
There have been slight innovations recently, including breathable shirts and insulating materials, but the mesh shirt is still what you can expect at almost every football club. There is always research being carried out to improve football shirts, so who knows what we’ll end up seeing in the future.