Fashion has always been a cyclical business, but how is it that the styles and brands of ’80s UK football culture have made it to the arms and wardrobes of the U.S.' biggest stars? Aleks Eror unpicks the history.
In the past year, street style across the world has discovered a new love for football and its fashion. What first showed signs in 2012's hookup between Palace and Umbro kicked off in full effect with the arrival of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, when everyone from Supreme to Patta, HUF, Nike and adidas joined the field to flirt with classic tropes of the sport. Since then, however, the emphasis has been less on the athletic side, and more on a very specific niche of football supporting culture: the fashion of the stadium terraces.
Recently, terracewear staples like Stone Island have been enjoying a huge resurgence in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. This has been helped in large part by hefty co-signs from artists like Drake (a bi-product of his blossoming bromance with grime) and the brand’s shock collaboration with Supreme last year. Meanwhile, matching two-piece tracksuits are back on the rise, classic tennis shoes are on feet everywhere, and brands like Fila are returning from cult obscurity to streets across the globe.
Such developments go hand-in-hand with what corners of the British press have dubbed the “nu lad” or “new Casual” movement – a shift away from the normcore and hipster trends of the ’00s back towards the loud, proud, lager-swilling days of the 1980s and ’90s. Yet, while terms like “Casuals,” “Terracewear,”“Lad” and “Hooligan” might sound familiar to UK readers, for those in America and further afield they are little more than meaningless buzz terms to be scattered across embarrassing cockney gangster movies. So, in an effort to bring a little context to a style that’s surging back from the dead, here’s a little of the history behind it all…
Legend has it that while fans of Liverpool FC were marauding across Europe following their team to away games in the European cup in the late 1970s, they came across many fashionable continentals kitted out in flashy French and Italian sportswear brands like Lacoste, Sergio Tachini, Ellesse and Fila. Inspired by their style and emboldened by soft European security measures, they used their strength in numbers to loot stores and carry the swag back to England with them - albeit passing it on to a very different kind of customer indeed.
That’s the official narrative, at least. Others point to Manchester United’s “Perry boys” as the original pioneers of Terracewear. Still, whoever it was, pieces like Fila’s Settanta and Terrinda tracksuits became instant classics, while a penchant for adidas Sambas, Forest Hills, Trimm Trabs and Stan Smiths probably classifies these fashion-conscious individuals as history’s first-ever sneakerheads.
It has been said that the “look” evolved partly in an attempt to avoid police attention. At the time, it was mainly skinheads causing a ruckus on the British football terraces and, in a bid to curb football violence, the police would force skins to de-lace their Doc Martens or leave them in a heap outside the ground so they posed less threat. However, this new breed of style-savvy hooligans — dressed like the celebrity tennis stars of the era — could slip by unnoticed, as no one thought they’d risk ruining their expensive clothing in a fist fight (perhaps not realizing that’s not much of a concern when it’s stolen).
History has come to know this group as “Casuals,” partly in thanks to Phil Thornton’s book Casuals: Football, Fighting & Fashion — one of the earliest studies of the phenomenon. That said, as mentioned earlier, Ian Hough ties the fad back to the “Perry Boy” gangs of 1970s Manchester. According to Hough, the “Casual” tag seems to have been attached by various subcultural historians writing after the fact:
“We never called it anything, and the only word we had for it was ‘boys’. It was the same in a few places, or else they called themselves ‘dressers’ or ‘trendies’… Not many writers have accurately depicted the emergence of that ‘nameless thing.’ Some of them have exaggerated when it happened, but only with regards to the football. Its true origins go way back to the 1950s and ’60s, to beatniks and mods, and on to soul boys, Perries and finally the sportswear crowd that caught on across Britain.”
As the look spread across the British Isles it started incorporating homegrown brands like Pringle of Scotland, Fred Perry and Lyle & Scott into its wardrobe as well, which probably had something to do with the scarcity of European away trips at the time. This was an era when UEFA’s two competitions — the European Cup and the Cup Winners Cup — only accepted one entrant from each nation, thereby restricting the number of English firms (gangs of supporters) able to enjoy a European “shopping trip” to just two.
But the Casual phenomenon wasn’t merely about aesthetics or evading the all-seeing eye of the law: it was territorial and tribal, spawned out of a need to assert yourself over people who looked very similar to you, but just happened to support a different team. More often than not, this was about style and violence. Smashing up the opposition’s favorite pub simply wasn’t good enough; you had to look sharp doing it as well.
Fashion journalist and QPR fan Robert Elms illustrates this in his style memoir, The Way We Wore, when recalling an away trip to Coventry City in the 1980s: “Some of Coventry City’s top boys were sporting Fila, which had been the business, but had gone out of fashion in London at least a month before. Instead of launching ourselves at them, we were lambasting them for sartorial tardiness. As it dawned on them they’d been outdone in the style stakes, you could see the will for the contest wane. They’d been beaten and they knew it.”
Like all trends, the look evolved over time. As the ’80s bled into the ’90s, brands like Burberry, Aquascutum, Prada, Armani, Ralph Lauren, Henri Lloyd, Paul & Shark, the aforementioned Stone Island, and its sister brand CP Company came to dominate the terraces. Yet this shift from sports and leisurewear to sailing apparel wasn't so much a style decision as it was sheer practicality. While the likes of Fila and Tacchini are perfect for the sun-kissed courts of glitzy Riviera tennis clubs, the rain-splattered, wind-battered winter English football terraces demand something a little more robust.
As longtime Chelsea supporter and memoir writer Mark Worrall writes on the CFC blog: “The only trouble with the majority of these garments was the fact that despite their punitive cost, they tended to be flimsily assembled… There was a definite gap in the market for clothes that were equally stylish, but slightly more hardwearing and able to cope with the vagaries of our eccentric climate.”
It’s hard to nail down exactly when this shift occurred, but writing in Maxim several years ago, editor and journalist Anthony Teasdale points to the 1992 European Championships in Sweden as Stone Island’s particular watershed moment: “up until 1992, the brand was still something of a secret, but England fans descended on a clothing outlet in Stockholm called Genius, which just happened to be crammed with Stone Island. The supporters did what British fans have been doing since the 1970s and promptly looted it.”
This account is clearly backed up by this image of a hooded figure wandering through the fracas in a bright yellow Stoney jacket as England fans smashed up Malmö in the aftermath of their elimination from the contest. It’s not clear why exactly Stone Island became the essential hooligan staple in the years that followed, but it likely has something to do with the prominence of the compass branding on the sleeve, which was instantly visible to anyone the wearer came across.
This period would also mark the beginning of the gradual sanitization of the scene. Whereas once someone had to actually go to football matches to have any idea what Casuals were, by the ’90s it had reached the mass media. This came first via bands like Oasis and the Happy Monday who had grown up on the terraces themselves, then later with the “hooliporn” epidemic of the mid-2000s — a combination of meat-headed memoirs penned by aging football thugs, and poorly acted hooligan B-movies starring the likes of Frodo Baggins. All this attention spawned a generation of pantomime hardmen, keen to cash in on the image of generations past.
Meanwhile, CCTV and football banning orders had largely banished hooliganism from British football stadiums themselves, meaning there was no danger involved in dressing like a hooligan anymore. It became just another look that you could buy into, like an overgrown Action Man outfit or a costume from TV.
Nowadays the full significance of the Casual phenomenon is often overlooked because it didn’t spawn its own music, and thus had less lasting cultural impact than, say, the punk, mod or skinhead movements. Yet, the style of that era is its lasting legacy, and for all its emphasis on violence and conflict, the Casual ethos was remarkably egalitarian. Put simply, if you had a commitment to football and were up for a fight, then you could be a part of it, and the Stone Island badge was your way of showing that.
A similar principle underscores the brand's popularity among the UK's inner-city black communities, although the two groups have no great history of unity. In many respects, that little compass on your arm says you have heart, money, and you aren't afraid to hold your ground (which is perhaps why it found such favor with the Champagne Papi himself on his recent trip to the UK).
Ultimately, more so than any direct link to football itself, it's this message which has been carried over to today. As UK style turns to embrace more overtly masculine influences – lifted from all corners of the country's history – these brands and items have returned to everyday street-level fashion as if they'd never left. Yet, as a whole new market in the U.S. wakes up to such styles and brands free of any knowledge of their history, it may be that a whole new era of terrace-inspired fashion is ready to begin. Time to dust off those Sambas...
Words by Aleks Eror for Highsnobiety.com