Sportswear brands have long employed avant-garde designers. Thom Browne has collaborated with the skiwear brand Moncler, Jun Takahashi has done collections for Nike, and Adidas has employed Yohji Yamamoto to create Y-3. These are not haphazard collaborations. For the international high fashion menswear designers, combining sports and couture allows them to link their clothes to the younger generation of men.
And last January, on the border of the Seine River after the Fall men’s show, techno sports fabrics filled the Lanvin showroom—on duffle coats, wool coats, and mountain climbing boots made with snakeskins.
From the other end, football uniforms have evolved significantly since the turn of the century. When modern American football began as an intercollegiate game in the late 1870s, the uniforms consisted of heavy wool jersey sweaters, knee length cotton pants, thigh high wool socks, and leather outdoor boots.
The first professional team, the Latrobe Athletic Association, founded in Pennsylvania in 1897, wore black wool jersey sweaters with a large “L” embroidered to the front. Thick wool jersey was the material of choice, or perhaps default, through the early days of football. Wool jersey was also the fabric of choice of the designer “Coco” Chanel in Paris, who was the first designer to create modern designer ready-to-wear clothes in the early 1910s. At the time, wool jersey was a fabric used primarily for men’s military uniforms and undergarments. The cheap but flexible material allowed Chanel to liberate women from the cumbersome turn of the century fashion in which layers of clothes constricted a woman’s movement. As football became a wider phenomenon, what players wore gained significance. The single most important change in football uniforms came in 1939 when the plastic helmet, a single mold shell was introduced by the Riddell Company in Chicago, and quickly replaced leather headgear. Add a chin strap and you basically have the tear-drop shape of today’s helmet.
With the rise of television and football becoming America’s sport, uniforms became inherent to distinguish between each team’s identity. Bright colors combinations were chosen for fan recognition. The prevalence of stripes on jerseys and pants suited the teams’ needs to differentiate themselves in how they looked on the field. On the whole, uniforms evolved into a more consistent look throughout the league.
The dominant fashion silhouette of the ’80s and the style of football uniforms mirrored each other. Power suits and big shoulder looks—emblems of the ’80s businesswoman—could be attributed partially to the influence of football on modern fashion. Fashion often reflects the socio-economic conditions of a time: the ’80s begat Wall Street and the big shoulder look meant to convey newfound wealth and power. Fashion, homes, and cars were all outsized. Dynasty reflected all this, and became a hit TV show.
On the field, players gained strength and girth. Player size increased dramatically from the gritty, compact archetype of the ’60s, and with all the protective gear, the football jersey morphed into oversized T-tops with sleeves to the elbows.
Nothing lasts forever. In fashion, trends come and go at lightning speed. The minimalist ’90s wiped out the colorful ’70s and the power looks of the ’80s. Then came Hedi Slimane, with his 2001 Dior Homme line, which drastically altered the direction of men’s fashion. “Skinny black suits” tailored to the rock ‘n’ roll underground kids of London and Berlin destroyed the stodginess of suits, allowing a younger generation to adopt the single-breasted skinny jacket and slim pant as a garment of choice.
Similarly, the bulky jerseys of the ’80s and ’90s gave way to a more slender silhouette. The specific needs of the athlete increasingly dictated the design of the jersey. Each jersey would come to be form-fitted around the athlete’s upper body with stretchy materials, tight around the waist, and cut at the top of the shoulders to wrap around the armholes with a point, causing the shoulder to resemble a small wing. Upper arms came to be left exposed instead of hidden under the flared sleeves. Pants would be cut above the knees with colorful high socks worn under crew socks and cleats.
Just as many of today’s fashion designers tend to plunder the style benchmarks of past eras as inspiration for their collections, the trend for revival is now a big part of any team’s chosen uniforms on game day. In fashion, this pilfering of the past has an official nomenclature: “references.” In football, it’s known as “throwbacks.” Historical uniforms are used on special occasions like a Thanksgiving Day game, an anniversary game, or sometimes simply as an alternate uniform. The Buffalo Bills have the standing bison helmet and white uniforms of their 1960s team; the Chicago Bears have their 1940s-era deep navy with orange stripes and numbers; the Philadelphia Eagles celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1960 championship team by wearing the same uniform (green number on white); and the Green Bay Packers have their retro 1929 with navy blue numbers inside a gold circle, beige pants, and a solid brown helmet mimicking the old leather helmet of the past.
At times, football uniform design seems more experimental than what designers put in their fashion shows. Football’s bright colors—red, orange, kelly green, teal, and even deep purple—seem to mock what’s accepted in men’s fashion: grey, beige, camel, and black. Even today, when labels like Thom Browne, Prada, and Raf Simons feature colors in their collection, the same looks at the stores often come in familiar commercial hues.
How often do you see any man with a green suit on the street? Okay, so there’s the Versace collaboration with H&M, which featured a “throwback” collection based on the late Gianni Versace’s beloved prints and color schemes. While Donatella Versace may not be a fan of American football, she certainly understands the tremendous value of heritage.
There is the sense that throwback and alternative uniforms are simply a means for teams to be more fashionable. It’s like wearing a special suit for a special occasion. The football uniform is fashion, and like fashion, it is continually evolving and looking ahead. Part of that evolution is driven by innovation in design techniques and particularly in fabrics. “Our Electric 39 (E39) products contain an electric monitor in a shirt that measures heart rate, breathability, and how quickly someone accelerates out of the blocks. It is used on the NFL combine,” says Under Armour’s Henry Stafford of the high-tech garment launched this year.
And then there is Charged Cotton. “We thought that cotton was the enemy. It turns out that cotton was never the enemy, but a lack of performance. We never did anything in cotton until 2011, and that’s when we launched Charged Cotton. We came up with a proprietary technology where we basically developed a cotton T-shirt that has the feel of cotton, but dries like a synthetic material—the first ‘true performance’ cotton. Our Charged Cotton T-shirt dries five times faster than any other cotton shirt out.”
Innovations continue to be critical for the company. Outside of football, Under Armour collaborated with the Welsh rugby team for their 2012 Six Nations uniforms. The jerseys feature a technical fabric called ArmourGrid: a woven rip-stop which allows the jersey to be really light, but really hard to tear or puncture. By crafting a high-modulus fiber for insets that mold the uniform to the body, the construct of the jersey prevents any stretch. The end result is a jersey with almost no stretch that is extremely close to skin. When the opponent tries to grab the player by the jersey, there is nothing there to get a hold of.
Fashion designers try to get a similar leg-up on their rivals. Some have already incorporated high-tech fabrics for their collections. Stella McCartney mixes nylon mesh (used for basketball uniforms) into her Spring collection, a nod to the sporting world. Both fashion and football uniforms portray power and individuality. The uniform on the fields has evolved like men’s designer fashion, towards tighter-fitting silhouettes. A younger generation of men is more comfortable with wearing a lean suit that evokes less formality than their father’s. Just as football players today are ever more aware of the fashion status of their work clothes.