THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE FOOTBALL STRIP – Part 1

1860s – 1880s

In the early days of football, there was little uniformity to a team’s kit. Players would often wear a mix of colours and styles, being identified instead by caps or sashes worn over their shirts. Teams with more money – such as those from wealthy public schools and universities – could invest in a set of matching jerseys or shirts, custom tailored to each player.

Football in the 1860s and 1870s was a very different game to that of today. Played almost exclusively by the sons of the wealthy upper classes, it was not until the 1870s, when the first inter-club matches were arranged, that uniform kits appeared, tailored for each player and often in colours associated with their public schools or universities.

And what glorious colours they were! Cerise and French grey, chocolate and pink, white and magenta, brown and green, maroon and pink, violet and orange, crimson and black are just a few of the more exotic jerseys that could be seen at the time. Various types of headgear were de rigueur including caps, snoods, hoods, turbans, fezzes and tartan Tam O’Shanters.

Dave Moor, Historical Football Kits

Later, as the sport gained popularity, kits could be purchased from a local sports outfitters, with a limited choice of colours and styles available. Initially, choices were limited to single colours or horizontal hoops, while shirts in halves (often, confusingly referred to as ‘quarters), and vertical stripes followed in the 1880s. Teams would sometimes choose colours that had symbolic links to their town, county, school or workplace. Some teams were offshoots of cricket or other sports clubs, and would simply reuse or replicate their colours in their football kits.

Arnold Kirke Smith’s England shirt, 1872. This is the oldest surviving association football shirt known to exist. © National Football Museum

By the late 1880s, the advent of professionalism in football meant it would be the responsibility of the club to purchase the team’s kits rather than the individual players. This led to cost-cutting, with club secretaries opting for cheaper, simpler kits in readily available colours and styles.

‘Quarters’ (so called because the body was made of four panels) were popular in the late 1880s.

“For a true kit anorak like me, there is nothing more exciting than discovering another exotic combination from the dawn of the game.”

Dave Moor
Simple, buttoned-neck jerseys were also a common style in the 1880s.

1890s

Colour clashes were commonplace in early games, causing confusion for players and spectators alike. In 1891, all Football League clubs were made to register their shirt colours to avoid teams turning up for a match in the same kit. This meant each of the 12 League teams had to have a unique kit, as no two teams could register the same colours. Clubs were free to wear whatever colours of shorts and socks (or knickers and hose, as the Victorians called them) they pleased.

Collared shirts, as worn by Scotland, c1892

If two clubs wished to wear the same colours, first choice went to whichever had been a member of the league for the longest. Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion and Notts County were amongst the small number of clubs who stuck to their prior colours, while others seemed to panic, and a bizarre selection of kits were registered in tones rarely seen before or after. Everton dropped their salmon pink and switched to ruby and blue, while Burnley dropped all navy for claret and amber. Wolves (whose kit clash with Sunderland had been the catalyst for the new rule) swapped their red and white stripes in favour of black and old gold, taking inspiration from the Wolverhampton town motto: ‘Out of darkness cometh light’.

A typical football shirt in the style worn during the 1890s to 1910s. Red and white stripes were a popular choice, and were worn by some of the most successful sides during this period, such as Sunderland and Sheffield United.

A year later, as the Football League added a Second Division, the rules were relaxed, the the Football League instead calling for all teams to keep a set of plain white ‘change’ shirts to be used in the event of a clash. For simplicity’s sake, and to prevent travelling teams from having to carry extra kit to away games, it would be the home side who would change.

Thanks to Dave Moor, of Historical Football Kits – an exhaustive resource of British football kit history – for his assistance with the exhibition.

Read Part 2: 1900s-1930s here

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