Psychology of Football Kit Design

Taken from the introduction to True Colours

One of the myths surrounding contemporary football kits is that the constant changing of the design is purely a modern invention, merely a revenue booster aimed at parting parents with their cash in order to frantically keep up to date with the latest kits for their ever-demanding children. Although the selling of replica shirts is obviously a major source of income to the clubs today, this criticism is, on the whole, a fallacy. Although this book takes 1980 – arguably the birth of modern sponsorship in sport – as its starting point, any rudimentary research into football history shows that from day one kit styles were constantly changing from season to season, and also often from colour to colour as fashion developed and clubs attempted to forge their identity.

Today, football supporters choose to show their allegiance to their team by donning a replica jersey. The same trend can be noticed in the professional poker scene as many pokerstars poker fans often wear a customized shirt to show their support. In the 70s it was scarves, bobble hats and rosettes, but now only identical versions of the uniform your heroes wear on the field is enough to indicate that you are a true fan. As recently as the late 80s, replica shirts were still not de rigueur for the hardcore football fan. It is really only since Gazza led the English emotional rollercoaster of Italia 90 and the emergence of the Premier League that the colourful polyester jerseys became more popular and filled terraces throughout the land.

The modern football kit is very complex. For many years it was purely a functional item – a simple means of identifying the team. Then, of course, as more teams joined the Football League, change strips had to be introduced to avoid colour clashes. Gradually, as fashion changed over the years, collars, V-necks, lace-up and button-up collars all came and went and came again. Occasionally, radical innovations would occur, as mentioned above when Hungary played England in 1953 and made the heavy woollen English jerseys look almost prehistoric compared to the relatively lightweight, sleek continental outfits.

However, in the mid-70s, when the first manufacturer’s logo appeared on a shirt, the colourful uniform not only had to contain the identity of the club, but also the identity of the company who produced it. When Hitachi signed the first professional shirt sponsor deal with Liverpool in 1979, a third element was thrown into the mix. Now the shirt also had to accommodate the large logo of a third party previously unconnected to the club. As anyone connected with design will confirm, it is no easy job blending these three identities together on a garment in such a way that each is clearly recognisable and does not clash with the other. Throw in the away strips problem when the entire recognised outfit has to be switched to another colour (think Coke/Diet Coke) and the problem is confounded. Also, with the popularity of replica shirts increasing in the early 90s, designers also began to consider not only how the shirt would look on the field but also how it would look off it. Yet another problem!
In very recent years, with the whole professional business side of football jumping up a gear, the kits switched focus back to enhancing performance on the pitch. Hi-tech lightweight fabrics designed to maximise comfort and minimise heat and moisture (handy for those balmy days in Glasgow!) are concerned primarily with the 90 minutes of a match. Of course, replica shirts are still a consideration as they consistently sell in their thousands, but not in the quantities they did in the 90s.

The fit of the shirts has also varied dramatically in recent years, from fairly tight to baggy to frankly enormous and back to tight again! Intimidation is the key here – larger shirts make the players look larger and stronger, but as players’ fitness levels increase in the now high-pressure football world, practical skimpier outfits (such as Kappa’s Kombat range) allow for the players’ own physique to create the threatening image. The combination of multi panelled hi-tech fabric outfits has also enabled designers to create styles that are intended to subconsciously increase physical presence and to give an almost armour-like impression – perfect for battle on the pitch.
It is easy to see draw parallels between modern football kits and army uniforms of the past; both feature bright hues trimmed with all manner of braid, badges, medals etc. and are worn by groups of men proudly displaying their colours before the opponent. The culture of swapping shirts after important matches can also be seen a modern-day equivalent of claiming a battle-scarred souvenir from the defeated enemy.

Colour choice can also give a psychological advantage. Red is probably the most successful colour in football (think Liverpool, Man Utd and Arsenal) and gives a fearless impression. In nature, animals that are brightly coloured often exude an aggressive and arrogant air – they have no need to camouflage themselves. Natural colour coding, as seen in wasps and bees, may also explain the combination of contrasting warning colours, normally arranged on the shirt in stripes of some form. This amalgamation generally gives a subconscious warning.

The second most popular colour in British football is probably blue. Although not as aggressive as red, it does exude a calming, self-assured air of confidence and loyalty. White, of course, is the colour of heroes – pure and virtuous. For away strips, yellow is another popular choice. This may just come from the fact that there are not many sides that play in yellow and it is therefore a pretty safe selection! Or it may have something to do with Brazil…

The colours that are harder to explain as shirt choices are those that are not as strong, for example pale blue or, worse, grey or even ecru! When one of the primary functions of a football kit is its clear, distinguished visibility, it is astonishing that grey goes through trends in popularity. Of course, its selection in the mid-90s did lead to one of the most incredible events in football fashion, as is explained later in the book, when Alex Ferguson famously blamed his Manchester United side’s grey shirts for their poor performances.

Gone are the days when the different coloured shirts were simply there to differentiate one team from the other. Of course, this is still a necessity, although even in this sophisticated age games are still occasionally played with both teams forced into wearing their change kits, or donning a training outfit, due to poor kit preparation and an unforeseen colour clash on the pitch.

The kit provides the most visible identity of a football club. After all, every minute of every match is identified and branded by the strip that is worn. As can be seen throughout the main section of this book, when a team are wearing a well-designed kit they often play better and achieve success. Also, when a new strip manufacturer arrives at a club, results can often pick up that season. The most passionate of goal celebrations is often accompanied (well it was, until it was banned by UEFA) by the ripping off of the jersey and waving it in jubilation like a flag of victory, antagonising the opposition and stirring the fervour of your own club’s fans.

Modern kit manufacturing and sponsorship deals are incredibly lucrative for the clubs. Manchester United’s recent 15-year deal with Nike is said to be worth an incredible £300 million. There is no doubt that these kind of contracts are vital to teams in these days of players’ astronomical wages.

The fact that the contemporary football battle dress also now contains the financial benefits of additional sponsorship is a problem solely for the kit designers – not the players, not the fans. To the players it is merely a part of their uniform, good or bad, and to the fans it is an expression of their loyalty and devotion. These extra logos are not something to be ashamed of as some older supporters claim. Often the brands become intrinsically linked with the club, especially if the relationship lasts for many seasons, although the downside of this is that supporters who have a strong dislike of a certain team have been known to boycott their sponsors’ products. For example, how many Spurs fans do you see with a JVC stereo?

Many supporters see the logos as actually enhancing the shirt, adding an extra focal point and helping to pinpoint a time and a place and also to identify with the side. After all, who would happily walk around with a shirt with the logo of an insurance company or photocopier supplier proudly displayed on it unless it meant something a little extra and gave a message out to other people? It is an example of another form of allegiance – joining together with these companies and organisations in the mutual support of a team. It is a mark of authenticity of the club’s, and consequently a replica shirt wearer’s, place in society. It’s all about belonging to a tribe, displaying your battle colours, adopting the rich and wide variety of designs your favourite team has worn, whether it’s a solid and traditional home shirt or an outrageous eyeball scorching away, showing who you follow and by default who you don’t. It’s all about belonging and showing your true colours.