Strip! Curator’s Tour

We’ve displayed football shirts at the National Football Museum for nearly 20 years, but never on this scale or from this angle. We normally feature kit in displays from a player or match association perspective, but for Strip! the focus was primarily on design, technology and fashion. We touched on this in our 2013 football and fashion exhibition Strike a Pose but that mainly looked at the fashion that the players and managers wore off the pitch. I always felt shirts in that exhibition didn’t quite get the coverage they deserved.

The starting point for the curation came from the Museum’s own collection. We have boxes and boxes of replica shirts from international teams and overseas club sides from the 1980s and 1990s that have never been displayed before. Going through this collection was really exciting, as we hadn’t previously paid that much attention to them due to them being replicas rather than match worn shirts.

Ultimately we’re about English football and so while these replica shirts don’t really fit in with our core collections, they worked perfectly for the exhibition. We left out so many brilliant shirts and could easily have done the exhibition again with a completely different set of over 200 shirts. It was often a close call on what made the grade. Sometimes it was things like crest placement, sponsors with interesting typography or which shirts had more avant garde patterns. We’re also lucky to have a number of fantastic shirts in our permanent collection that are either in our archive or on display and many of these certainly fit the display criteria.

After going through all the shirts available to us, we realised we weren’t a million miles off an exhibition, though some of the obvious ones were missing. At that point we worked to build a network of private collectors, football clubs and kit manufacturers and hey presto, we had an exhibition! The support we received from adidas, Admiral, Hummel, PlayerLayer and Umbro really gave the exhibition a lift. Shirts started to float into the museum from a number of private collectors who have been incredible and brilliant to work with.

We were also aided by author, illustrator, football shirt expert and all-round brilliant guy John Devlin, whose True Colours books were our bibles of the exhibition. John ensured we were on the right track and added invaluable expertise where needed. He also did a beautiful rainbow illustration of a number of shirts in True Colours style which graces the centre of the exhibition.   

I wanted to display shirts like they were an art form (because they often are!) and treat the designs with the respect they deserve. Great design is great design regardless of the medium it’s presented in. With this in mind, the shirt designs themselves had to be used as the main inspiration for the exhibition’s look and feel. Tim Ashmore (our Graphics and Interpretation Producer) created the space’s 3D design and reworked large-scale replicas of well-known shirts which adorn the walls and seating. This added to the authenticity and gave a clear marker for the different themes that the exhibitions explores.

Our original idea for the design was to look at iconic kits as a vortex that draws you in. This design was incorporated into the digital content that David Mansell (our Digital Producer) created and can be seen throughout this site as well as the physical exhibition space.

The aim was never to be the biggest football shirts exhibition ever, but to be as comprehensive as possible and to go right back to the start. The exhibition had to be authentic and be representative and I think we achieved this.

I’ve always felt football can sometimes be destroyed by tribalism that oversteps the healthy rivalry line. My favourite thing about Strip! is that it has a very democratic design. We’ve really taken the tribalism out of the game, in some respects – we’ve got shirts from non-league teams, next to Premier League teams, next to women’s teams, next to national teams. I love that.

Jon Sutton, Curator.

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