Everybody’s got a favourite football shirt. Some of us spend a small fortune filling our wardrobes with them. And down at the National Football Museum in Manchester right now, Britain’s biggest ever exhibition of strips features some of the most weird and wonderful designs in football history.
Strip! How football got shirty, which launched this week and runs until June 2020, examines the very fibres of shirt fashion, design and technology through the ages, from the early, heavy woollen creations, to the brand-emblazoned creations of today.
Football shirts from down the decades will be on display, featuring absolute classics from yesteryear to unexpected game-changers, along with some pretty spectacular own goals which some fans would rather forget.
For every classical England effort there is a Manchester United grey away shocker, for each stylish Ajax strip there’s a Hull City tiger pattern. This collection boasts a bit of everything.
“The exhibition aims to tell the story of football shirt design from its earliest days in Victorian times through to modern day,” event consultant John Devlin tells The Sportsman.
“It examines how culture, symbolism, identity and tradition are part of football kits and how they have had to adapt to fabric technology developments, the arrival of sponsors, manufacturers’ branding and the fashion demands of the replica buying sector.”
With over 200 items on display, this is the largest exhibition of football shirts ever assembled in this country and only goes to demonstrate how our current crush on all things kit-related shows no sign of cooling - something which Devlin is more than aware of.
“Football shirts go through fads of popularity, but every now and then something occurs within the culture that generates new interest,” he explains. “Football is inherently a nostalgic sport and at the moment it's the retro look as designers, fans and sellers of old replica shirts celebrate and recycle designs and motifs from the past.”
The exhibition promises to capture the growth of the football shirt phenomenon, charting the replica boom and the bold designs that followed, right through to the high-tech advancements and retro reappraisals we see today, a passion which John has held for as long as he can remember.
“I love the fashion, the colours, changing designs, branding, logos and how this has to change and adapt as the years go by,” he says.
“It's the meaning and power behind the shirts that fascinates me and how we, as supporters, identify and use it as our tribal identification and relate to the shirt as a way of connecting to the club.”
The event will also include Arsenal's famous “bruised banana” away kit from 1991 to ‘93, West Germany's iconic home shirt from 1988 to ‘91, Denmark's beautiful halved Hummel offering from 1986, as well as some early Admiral classics.
Items from the museum’s own collection will be on display, alongside loans from Classic Football Shirts, specialist collectors, enthusiasts and football clubs, not to mention kit manufacturers such as Adidas, Admiral, Hummel and Umbro.
Kits created as high fashion items will also feature, including those by cult label Fokohaela, designers Christopher Raeburn and Yohji Yamamoto, and Dutch streetwear brand Patta, while there will be interviews with designers, manufacturers, supporters and kit fanatics throughout.
So for a man who has dedicated so much time to writing and talking about football kits, as well as producing a number of books on the subject, what would Devlin say is his favourite era when it comes to football shirt design?
“For me, it's the late 1980s and early 1990s,” he reveals. “We'd had a couple of decades of pure modernism in the kit world, but by the early 90s the Premier League was just round the corner and all of a sudden we had a postmodern look back to football's origins, borrowing certain design elements from the past.
“Alongside all this we had a plethora of bold and brave designs that threw tradition out of the window and really challenged what a football shirt could look like. In many respects it was a very similar place to where we are now, but the main difference being that kits back then were a little less self-conscious.”
Whatever your favourite shirt, any fan of football will surely love this dazzlingly visual trip down memory lane.
Strip! How Football Got Shirty is at the National Football Museum in Manchester from November 22nd 2019 and runs until June 7th 2020. For more information click here.