The story of replica football shirt industry, by Dr. Chris Stride
The sight of fans wearing replica club shirts is familiar to anyone who watches football from the stand or armchair. It is hard to imagine that the vivid blocks of colour created by masses of kit-wearing supporters haven’t always been part of the typical match day scene, that new designs wouldn’t be unveiled to great fanfare and debate each summer, or that bigger clubs wouldn’t boost their budgets with multi-million pound kit deals. Yet if you went back in time to an early 1980s football match, whilst many of the fans’ match day rituals would seem familiar, be it the pre-match pub visit, the pie stall and burger van, or the club scarves and hats on show, you would have struggled to spot a single football shirt apart from those worn by the players.
Since professional football began in the late 1800s, it has been possible to buy a shirt resembling that of your favourite team. Kit manufacturers and sports shops have been around to manufacture, supply and distribute football kit for almost as long as the modern game. However, this industry was based on the assumption that the buyers were purchasing football shirts to play in, not as leisurewear. Whilst it was possible to buy an individual shirt, kit was typically sold in sets of 12 – i.e. for use as a team.
Crowd scenes photos from the late 1800s through to the 1960s confirm that any instances of a individuals buying football shirts and then wearing them to a match in this period are at most extremely rare examples of genuine eccentrics. Though the black and white photography enhances the similarity across the decades, it’s clear that match day fashion changed little in 70 or 80 years, other than in the style of hats. The largely – though not exclusively male crowd would be huddled in heavy coats in the winter months, possibly switching to jacket and tie in warmer weather.
The idea of dressing so smartly for a football match seems strange today, unless you are a club director or employee. But for much to the twentieth century, people had far less disposable income – and hence far fewer sets of clothes – than they do now. Work or school outfits and ‘Sunday best’ were often the limits of a wardrobe. Even if you could have afforded it, wearing any type of sportswear away from the pitch would have been considered odd – male fashion rejected bright colours, which, in the UK at least, were considered effeminate until very recently – or arrogant, as if you were pretending to be a player.
The replica football shirt industry began in 1959 when Umbro – who along with Bukta had been the principal supplier of shirts to professional, amateur and school teams for much of the 20th century – launched the Umbroset. This consisted of an individual child-size football kit in a gift box, with enclosed hints and tips on how to improve your game, and was the first time that manufacturers actively promoted football kit to individuals rather than teams. This innovation reflects the changes in society at the time: post-war austerity was fading, and with increased wealth, families could afford to buy such gifts for their children.
The Umbroset was not the beginning of a replica kit business promoting the football shirt as leisurewear, let alone adult leisurewear. The packaging, as well as the inclusion of shorts and socks, made it very clear that this was for children to play football in; for the park or the playing field, not to wear around the house. It was also a very clearly gendered product – the full title was Umbroset for Boys. The thought that girls would play football, let alone want to buy a kit, was not entertained.
However, the Umbro’s branding of the product hints at later trends, most notably in the ‘dress like your heroes’ promotion. Umbro reflected the arrival of the swinging 60s by switching the ‘face of the Umbroset’ from the fatherly figure of Manchester United manager Matt Busby, to his stylish and glamorous striker Denis Law. Society was changing – children had begun to have more free time and less responsibilities, enhanced by the extension in school leaving age from 14 to 16. A distinct teenage culture developed, most noticeably in music and fashion, as did the idea of teenagers having casual outfits, other than school uniforms and smart clothing. Whilst there are few photos of children wearing replica shirts on the terraces at this time, some sportswear did become popular leisurewear amongst young adults, most notably the Fred Perry tennis shirt. This in turn began to break down the wider barrier of sportswear being worn away from the pitch or court…
The Umbroset sold well enough to be retained, but it wasn’t an instant money-spinner. Umbro faced competition from other manufacturers, who began to produce similar replicas. At the time, shirt designs were not copyrighted or exclusive. Clubs could and would switch manufacturers during a season. Similarly there was nothing to stop any clothing manufacturer running off a blue shirt and marketing it as the Chelsea kit. The style of football shirts at this time also made this very easy – the 1960s had seen a paring back of previously distinctive shirt designs to basic, monochrome outfits, usually with a round neck and no badge. For two seasons, even arch-traditionalists Arsenal dropped their white sleeves and wore the same red shirt with white collar and cuffs as Manchester United; a white jersey could be produced and sold as either Derby, Spurs or England!
This was great for small, start-up sports manufacturers looking to quickly cash in, but it limited both long-term profits – and also the wider appeal of football shirts – since children could never really claim to have the ‘official’ product, and sometimes not even the kit of a specific club. In the early 1970s, Bert Patrick of Admiral Sports, one of the recent entrants to child replica shirt production, was frustrated by this limitation in the authenticity of replica shirts, and saw an opportunity to shake up and capture much of the market. What happened next transformed the replica football shirt industry and set the scene for it expanding to adult fans…
Dr Chris Stride is an applied statistician and peripatetic statistics trainer/consultant with an interest in sport history, who is based at the University of Sheffield, UK.