Something that’s important in any game of football is the team shirt. It allows teams to identify themselves to their supporters, as well as making it easier for players to spot teammates when playing. The development of this piece of kit has changed over the years , so here’s a look at the different styles and materials used in football shirts from past to present.
The very first organised games of football started in the Middle Ages and it’s thought that it was a mob game. There were no rules and teams were able to have as many players as they wished. As you can imagine, there was pure chaos with hundreds of people attempting to kick a single ball.
Later on when young people went to university, they formed their very own football clubs. Games still ended in chaos due to a lack of rules, so Cambridge University made their own in 1848. Although they were very basic, these rules shaped football into what it is today.
At this time there was no uniformed kit, so players turned up in whatever they had to hand. The only way you’d be able to tell which team was which would be by a distinctly coloured cap, sash or scarf. Generally, players would wear cricket whites due to the majority of football teams being formed by cricketers.
It was during the 1800s that the first football clubs were founded, with Sheffield FC, Hallam and Notts County first coming to existence. The majority of games played by these clubs were in schools or universities, so the concept of inter-club matches was yet to exist.
By 1863 leading players created the Football Association and the very first set of uniformed rules were created. Just short of ten years later the English FA Cup was established in 1871, marking a turning point which forced all teams to play by official FA rulings. Due to these changes, a newspaper reported on how hard it was to tell the teams apart.
The FA responded, and the very first uniform kits started to appear in 1870. English football kits would generally follow the colour scheme of the public schools and sport clubs from which they originated. Jerseys would be worn along with caps, cowls or other headgear as was typical of this time.
In the early days of football, the game was played exclusively by men from either the upper middle class or minor aristocracy. This allowed them to go directly to a tailor, who would create their kit, although this wasn’t without its own problems. Teams like Queen’s Park had a shirt which was white with black stripes. Due to different tailors having their own idea how the kit should look, the gaps between the stripes often changed from player to player.
It wasn’t until the 1880s that football became the people’s game, as the working class started to get involved. As more and more people were developing a passion for the sport, Bukta took the advantage in becoming the first sports wear manufacturer in the UK in 1879.
The shirts players wore were referred to as jerseys, and they would consist of a close fitting knitted garment which didn’t have a collar. At the time an alternative would be a guernsey, which was a heavier garment very similar to a jersey yet more closely associated with fishing.
Different clubs chose different shirts depending on what they felt helped with performance. Burnley chose to use a ‘sark’ in 1884, which is a loose fitting shirt that includes a collar.
What’s interesting is at the time the focus was on football shirts that were affordable rather that enhancing performance. This is why the majority of teams had vertical stripes instead of horizontal ones, as it was much cheaper to do.
Although there wasn’t much in the way of innovation for some time, the formation of the Football League in 1888 created fixtures for other clubs to play each other. It was this time that showed the kit responsibility falling on the specific club rather than the player.
After Wolves and Sunderland played each other in 1890, both in red and white stripes, it was decided that clubs had to register a team colour so this would never happen again. It wasn’t until 1891 that the aesthetic of football shirts changed once again. Aston Villa wore claret jerseys, complete with sleeves, and a distinctive neck band.
As football progressed into the twentieth century, there was more of a focus on creating shirts that were durable rather than cheap. Tough, heavyweight natural fibres were used, and they would either be cotton or wool.
1909 saw a rule which required goalkeepers to wear distinctive tops which allowed them to be identified from other players. They would normally wear wool sweaters with a flat cap to keep the sun out of their eyes.
After the Second World War, numbers were introduced on the back of kits so individual players could be easily identified. At this time, clubs used ration coupons and more often than not, supporters would donate theirs to help.
As the nineties started to kick off, a brand new type of shirt was introduced that has been in the game ever since. Lightweight materials were used to ensure players can last a full 90 minute game, utilising mesh polyester and nylon. As football had become more mainstream money was injected into numerous clubs, allowing the shirts to be of the highest quality.
Although there has been the introduction of breathable materials and skin tight lycra for training purposes, the current form of football shirt is here to stay. It’ll be exciting to see what further developments create advantages in future kits. We will just have to wait and see.
This blog was written by Rachel Jensen on behalf of Campo Retro, your first stop for retro football apparel.
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