The ’90s were a period of excess, in many ways moreso even than the decade that preceded it. Football kits now were no longer simple solid colours or stripes with a splash of branding, as had been the case at the beginning of the ’80s. Instead, they routinely featured a third colour, jacquard fabric patterns and complex prints in the background of the main design. It was not at all uncommon to see all of those features on a single shirt.
Tottenham’s new Umbro kit, introduced for the 1991 FA Cup final featured a baggier cut and much longer shorts. While the strip was the object of ridicule on the day, within a season, this style had been almost universally adopted by the top sides in English football.
The same year, the Football League introduced sleeve patches to be worn in their competitions. This was a first for English teams, but by the end of the decade, all major competitions had brought in sleeve patches in their own designs.
In 1992 Umbro introduced the first set of consciously retro-styled kits, which looked to the strips of the distant past for inspiration. Aston Villa, Ipswich Town, Oldham Athletic and Manchester United were amongst the teams who kicked off the inaugural Premier League season with Victorian style lace-up collared shirts.
The Premier League introduced squad numbers for the 1993/94 season, so now shirts bore players names for the first time in English club football. The national team had first worn names during the 1992 Euros, as had the 1993 League Cup and FA Cup finalists, Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday. Squad names were probably first introduced in American Football in 1967, and the NASL were the first association football league to use them in the 1970s. English teams had first sported them in the Intercontinental/Toyota Cup tournaments in the early 1980s.
The introduction of squad names and numbers on players shirts was replicated on the high street. Shops like Allsports gave customers the chance to buy the shirts and have them personalised at the same time – for an extra price, of course. From this point on, seeing supporters in stadium stands wearing their team’s current shirt with their favourite player’s name on the back would be the norm rather than a curiosity.
The ban on clubs wearing black was also lifted, as referees kits are overhauled, and are now issued in a variety of colours. QPR were the first to wear an all black away kit, debuting it in their first match of the 1993/94 season.
The 1994 World Cup in the USA was notable for its memorable kits, not least of all those worn by the home nation. Created by adidas to represent the country’s stars and stripes flag, these kits dramatically divided opinion and regularly feature in lists of both the best and worst strips ever made.
Nike made a big impression as they took over from adidas as Arsenal’s kit supplier in 1994. The memorable designs of Drake Ramberg included his interpreation of the club’s Gunners nickname, in the form of a stylised lightning bolt graphic. These could be found subtly applied to the red body of the home shirt or boldly on the club’s 1995-96 away kit in two tones of blue. Although Arsenal weren’t the first English club to wear Nike strip, this marked the start of an era in which the American brand became an everpresent in domestic football.
A more stripped-back – although still obviously retrospectively styled – aesthetic began to emerge in the middle of the decade, most notably with Newcastle United’s home and away kits by adidas. Their 1995-96 shirts featured minimal embelishments (even the manufacturer’s three-stripe trim was restricted to just the sleeves), alongside designs and colours derived from victorian iterations of Newcastle strips and ‘grandad’ collars that had not been seen on a football pitch in the best part of a century. These kits are now celebrated as some of the best examples of the modern era.
The impact of those adidas kits influenced other manufactuers to strip away some of the earlier design excess. By the 1997-98 season, shadow-prints and jacquard fabrics had fallen dramatically out of favour. Instead, the focus shifted to sports science, technology and innovative fabrics. Statements of intent were now more likely to be made on labels and in advertisements rather than on the kits themselves.