In our third installment of World Cup Month, we question whether or not the football jersey will ever become truly stylish.
Browse the shelves of any streetwear boutique and it won’t take long to find something sports-influenced. Baseball shirts, basketball jerseys, coaches’ jackets, boxing shorts, American football tops, hockey jerseys, polo shirts - the list of sporting pastimes to have been assimilated into street fashion goes on and on. There is, however, one notable exception. One conspicuous gap in the sportswear horizon that’s so glaring you could fit a large expanse of grass and two sets of goalposts in it. We’re talking, of course, about football (soccer, to Americans).
Where street fashion designers have been eager to adopt the styles and silhouettes of so many popular sports in the past, capitalizing on their preexisting familiarity and cultural cachet, football has never made it into that wardrobe. This wouldn't be such a surprise were it not for the fact that football is, with an estimated three to three-and-a-half billion fans around the globe, the most popular sport in the world by a significant margin. Think about it: that’s just under half the people on Earth.
Why is it, then, that a sport with such a colossal following hasn’t found its signature clothing styles embraced by mainstream urban fashion? The obvious answer is that, despite football ranking among the top sports for many countries right across the globe, Americans have never really held it in the same regard as their holy quadrangle of baseball, basketball, American football and (to a lesser extent) ice hockey.
For large swathes of America, football/soccer/whatever-you-want-to-call-it has maintained a status of “hobby,” to be played for personal enjoyment rather than followed with the same religious devotion as other, more “professional” sports. Obviously the notion that football isn’t professional is laughable to countries with a strong following for the sport (the average UK Premier League player makes around £23.5k/$38k a week, with top flight players earning over £300k/$510k), but given that America is arguably the driving force behind the majority of the world’s streetwear industry, its prevailing attitude has a strong trickle-down effect on the scene as a whole.
Such an argument doubtless has some truth to it, but it doesn’t explain why other, far less popular, sports than football have still managed to find a niche in street fashion. A second explanation worth looking at is the attitude taken towards football fashion in nations where it’s the number one sport. In the UK, for example, wearing a team strip when not either watching or playing a match has developed a powerful negative stigma. Given the country’s past problems with hooliganism, the wearing of a football kit in day-to-day life has become (whether rightly or wrongly) a visual indicator of the at-times loutish and violent culture that characterizes football fandom at its worst.
In fact, so powerful was this association that it led to gangs of die-hard football hooligans - known locally as “firms” - to abandon the practice of wearing their team strip altogether so as to avoid identification by the police. In its place they adopted many of the high-end sportswear brands they encountered on trips to Europe for international fixtures - brands such as Stone Island, C.P Company, Fila and Sergio Tacchini - leading to the birth of the Casuals movement in the 1980s. So fiercely proud was this subculture of its style that the wearing of football shirts became considered increasingly cheap and tacky - an image it never truly recovered from. Even today, long after the Casuals movement has died out (at least, in its original form), many people see the wearing of football team strips away from matches as both uncultured and deeply unfashionable.
So is that it? Faced with indifference on one hand and abandonment on the other, is the humble football shirt forever consigned to a lonely existence trapped between the pitch, the terraces, the pub and the locker room? Well, interestingly enough, there are signs those walls might finally be lifting, and it’s America who’s pulling the strings on the other side...
While full-blown integration of the “soccer jersey” silhouette in the streetwear arsenal is still some way off, an increasing number of brands have been experimenting with what it can offer in recent months. HUF joined forces with Thrasher on an understated black-on-black number in November last year; adidas produced this very authentic looking piece for the entirely fictional HZO Club United; zeitgeist overlords Supreme have been getting in on the action with a whole host of designs using the classic football shirt template; and let's not forget Nike and Sophnet's bizarre, made-up F.C. Real Bristol.
The reason? Well, despite the fact a recent survey by Reuters showed that 86% of American respondents know little to nothing about the FIFA World Cup taking place right now, the sheer size of America’s population means that even a niche interest still has a following large enough to make it significant. What’s more, given that the country has almost zero history of violent culture attached to football (quite the opposite, in fact), the public perception of football-related clothing is that it’s an unconventional, slightly alternative choice, rather than the lowest-common-denominator it represents in many European nations.
With that in mind, and with soccer’s increasing commercial popularity in the United States, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the stylistic tropes of football clothing could find a more permanent place in the streetwear playbook moving forward. Whether they’ll reach the level of penetration enjoyed by other popular sports remains to be seen. But, for now at least, there are signs the knee-jerk stigma of years past may finally be shown the red card.
Check out our other installments of World Cup Month.