It’s hard to argue with the purity of soccer. Two halves, ninety plus minutes, rabid fans, no pads, twenty two players. There’s something about that stripped-down nature of the game that puts the emphasis on what’s in front of you. There’s no frills, it’s just two teams and the moment. Yet the game wasn’t always this clear cut or streamlined.
Although soccer wasn’t always this orderly, initially it was just groups of friends that came together to play the emerging game. During this period clubs didn’t have set uniforms which lead to mass confusion on all sides of the ball. These players would wear either cricket shirts if they had them, or just throw on whatever they could piece together, and were separated into teams by small items such as hats or scarves. As soccer went professional in England during the early 1870’s both spectators and the press called for some uniformity in the sport (sorry I had to.) As soccer was largely an upper class sport, early jersey colors were mainly based on school or club colors. For players that weren’t lucky enough to be on wealthy squads, they were left wearing plain white shirts, as the expense fell upon the team itself, not the individual players.
This worked for a while, but it couldn’t keep up with the sport’s expansion, and pretty soon soccer outgrew this simplistic uniform system. Around the start of the twentieth century clubs were becoming more legitimate, and their uniforms followed suit. Low quality soccer shirts were replaced with tough, slimmed down jerseys, and clubs began sporting full matching unifoms. The details of the shirt were still largely up to the club itself, with many teams opting for laced crew necks (think Michael Bastian’s rugby shirt without the collar) and various stripes to make the players more noticeable.
Professional soccer was shelved at the start of World War One, and when it returned after the war, the laced neck was gone, replaced by a straight collar with a v-neck. Over the next several years teams continued to tweak colors and patterns to set their players apart. In 1939, this ingenuity reached a new level as British teams began putting numbers on the back of their jerseys for the first time. Unfortunately, just as this move was being made, World War Two began and it was over half a decade before numbered jerseys actually became prevalent on the field. After the Second World War, the numbers and details that had become an integral part of British jerseys spread throughout Europe, allowing teams to create jerseys that represented their respective regions.
Around the mid twenty first century teams began experimenting with new materials, shifting away from cumbersome cottons to lighter synthetics that allowed for greater movement. Long sleeve shirts were replaced by short sleeves, the v-neck was switched out for a crewneck, and the modern jersey shape was finalized. During the next few decades, more technical materials were introduced, and sponsors began slapping their logos across the jerseys. The jerseys of today are loud and in your face, covered in brash colors, big logos, and unmistakeable patterns. While on the field jerseys shift further into becoming intense statement pieces for the players, the influence of more the traditional soccer jersey can still be seen in menswear today. The long sleeved, striped cotton shirt can still be seen in many collections today, harkening back to the early English clubs and their primitive unis.