We present a heartfelt tribute to the ostentatious football strip designs of the late ’80s and early ’90s, harking back to times of bold chevrons, dazzling jacquards, seizure-inducing colorways and underperforming English teams.
Whether it's throwback NBA jerseys, cutting-edge running gear or preppy polo, tennis and rugby attire, sportswear has become so extensively mined for fashion inspiration that it's almost beyond cliché. While athleticwear has long been assimilated into the contemporary fashion conversation, there's one corner of sportswear history that remains largely untouched by fashion's roaming nostalgia: the daring, ostentatious and utterly brilliant football kit designs of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The patterns in Manchester United's recently leaked third strip may be harking back to the team's ’91 kit, but the world of contemporary football apparel remains disappointingly tame compared to its glorious heyday; the players who stepped out in the Champions League final last week did so in sterile, razor-sharp gear engineered for maximum performance rather than kaleidoscopic works of madness.
Football aficionados over the age of 30 will go misty-eyed at the era's many classic strips - ones that, much like '70s audio gear and midcentury furniture - transcended pure utility and became true design masterpieces. Denmark took to the 1986 World Cup in a Hummel strip that was so sublime in design that it now commands over $500 on the replica market, while West Germany's iconic Italia ’90 kit paired adidas's Trefoil logo with a bold trio of chevrons mirroring the country's flag. The grosgrain-cuffed kit worn by England's team in Turin became so synonymous with the tragedy, despair and tears that followed the Three Lions' semifinal exit that it was resurrected in Umbro's 2012 collaboration with Palace.
What is often overlooked, however, is how utterly deranged so many of the era's designs were.
Perhaps it was cross-pollination from the acid house scene's over-indulgent use of polyester - which allowed for dizzyingly bright colors and was jacquard-woven with patterns that were difficult to bootleg - or simply a too-enthusiastic response to the spartan jerseys of previous decades, but the football kit designs of the late ’80s and early '90s brazenly toed the line between design classics and garish monstrosities. It was a moment in time when the world's biggest sport lost its collective mind and taste, using its teams' kits as battlegrounds for a polyester arms race, with the winner receiving the ignominious honor of sending their team onto the pitch looking like walking Kandinsky paintings.
Celtic's away kit, according to the October ’91 edition of football fanzine When Saturday Comes, resembled "a particularly unappetizing vegetarian meal," while Arsenal's ’91 second strip seemed to take inspiration from road traffic signs and Lazio's ’96 away shirt looked like the wearer had walked through wet paint. The USA got patriotic when they hosted the ’94 World Cup, with a star-spangled shirt honoring that most American of fabrics: denim, at the same time Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos was stepping out in a kit that would likely induce seizures.
Manchester United, meanwhile, were busy obliterating the competition in the newly-formed Premier League draped in a series of kits that somehow managed to incorporate corseted collars and quilted padding alongside the usual jacquard madness. The polyester hysteria wasn't limited to the World Cup and globally renowned teams, either: things seemed to further lose their grip on reality the deeper you delve into the lower leagues. There's something tragically amusing about the thought of barely-mediocre teams from backwater English towns stepping onto away games in bizarre, tripped-out uniforms; see the likes of Nottingham Forest, Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool FC and Carlisle United.
What's so endearing about these outlandish sportswear relics is how incongruous they are in comparison to the present day, where players on $100k a week contracts march onto pitches in Dri-Fit jerseys engineered from laser-cut mesh, in sterile colorways that look more like app interfaces than the creations of acid-addled mad scientists.
American sportswear staples - basketball vests, baseball jerseys and the like - may be de rigueur in streetwear these days, but the football shirt remains refreshingly untouched by fashion's wandering gaze. Brands have certainly dipped their toes into the sport from time to time; Palace's aforementioned Umbro collaboration being case in point, followed by some lackluster efforts from Patta, Supreme, HUF and Nike and SOPHNET.'s bizarre, fictional F.C. Real Bristol team.
The football top may never get the same mainstream fashion kudos as its American cousins, but I'm fine with that; it's best left as a relic of a bygone era when the world's biggest sport threw caution to the wind and indulged in some reckless, psychotic and totally brilliant experiments with sportswear design.
For more tributes to the humble soccer jersey, take a look at the following pieces: