From The Terrace To The Streets: The Evolution Of Football Fashion

I feel the trip down memory lane with retro styles of polos and sweaters is a nod to what people love most about football. When you are first introduced to football, it grips you quickly and many people fall madly in love with it.
— Ross - Leyburn Sports

By Jordan Florit


Terrace fashion seems to be undergoing a sort of resurgence in recent years and there may be an unlikely catalyst for the rebirth of some of its oldest components.

In 2017, J Hus' Did You See? reached 9th in the UK Charts, he featured on Stormzy's Bad Boys alongside Ghetts which peaked at 22, and in at 63 was Dave's Samantha. There was a trend running throughout. In the first song, J Hus announced that he “came looking like a ganja farmer," before referencing his headwear again in the second, by which time he was “in a flat cap looking like somebody's father." When he joined up with Dave, the latter would announce he was "Stone Island from head to feet."

When Arsenal fan J Hus released his album in the May, he had already made himself synonymous with the bucket hat and the marketing campaign reflected that. All around London, famous statues were adorned with the former staple of terrace wear, emblazoned with his name. The album cover? A bucket hat, of course.

It was as if Paul Smith and Champion had been reloaded. Trends suggest it may have snuck back into men's fashion as early as 2012 - Rihanna wore one to the World Cup Final in 2014 -but it is since then that it's reinvigorated itself in the sphere of matchday garments.

In the 1990s, the bucket hat had become "almost the most deliberately subversive" piece of clothing you could wear, according to Jess Carter Morley and Priya Elan of The Guardian. Everything it stood for was hinged on its wearers anti-establishment stance and their willingness to lose a bit of dignity for wearing something so daft. It resonated with the subculture that the football casuals had developed.

Along with cagouls and trench coats, it was Oasis' Gallagher brothers and Britpop culture that provided the iconic visual associations for the acceptable face of the casuals. But thanks to Kevin and Perry, the bucket hat had to go into exile. It was resurrected overseas by the likes of Pharrell and Frank Ocean in the US a decade or so later, yet it went underground in the UK, finding a home in the original grime scene of the early 2000s.

Meanwhile, large parts of terrace wear persisted through Britpop’s evolution from the late nineties into the early noughties, and a new wave of British rock bands such as Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian ensured brands like Lyle and Scott and Stone Island remained peripherally vogue.

As terrace fashion evolved from the 1970s to the current day, it always had its bedfellows, but the dominant partner hasn’t always been the same: in the ‘70s, terrace wear was influenced by mod culture; through the ‘80s, continental sporting brands were the inspiration; but the 90s saw Britpop and rock influenced by terrace wear, with bands from Manchester, Liverpool and provincial cities such as Leeds, Sheffield and Leicester dominating the scene and thus setting the clothing trends.

“Football fans’ dress has evolved to mirror whatever the fashion is of the time,” Graham, the founder of The North Curve believes.

“In the 80s it was skinheads, then acid house and the Manchester scene. But in the 30s men wore suits. I'm not sure football has affected fashion as much as fashion has affected football. Personally, in Britain, I see a football subculture of fans that very much live in the late 80s/early 90s, fashion and music-wise. The Manchester scene of that time and the dress sense and music are still the 'go to' style 30 years on. That style was initially influenced, I believe, by 60s counterculture: i.e. Mods, Paris rioters, scooter gangs in Italy. As far as football shirts go, the French and Italian club shirts of the 80s and 90s account for a huge number of the 'classic' designs and aesthetic feel of current football culture.”

Now, two counter-cultures are coming to the mainstream together – grime and terrace wear.

It has made some uncomfortable. In a High Snobiety opinion piece in 2017, it was suggested terrace wear, Stone Island in particular, had been “gentrified” because it was being worn – and thus ‘ruined’ for football fans - by Drake. To come to that conclusion fails to take account of the journey Stone Island took from the UK grime scene to the Canadian rapper, and onwards to Travis Scott, and others.

In his 2017 single ‘Big For Your Boots,’ Stormzy rapped,

“I saw bare kicks, saw bare clothes

Said fuck that, I can't wear those

I don't like them, they're not my ting

They went silent, they're all weirdos

Like yeah, Stormz gone clear

Never had a Tom Ford or a Moncler”

Had Stormzy opted for endorsements from those brands, then, yes, perhaps terrace wear would have become gentrified, not that any part of a casual’s wardrobe is cheap. Instead, Stormzy – the self-anointed “grime scene’s Lukaku,” Dave, J Hus, Wiley, Giggs and Skepta kept true to the twinning cultures.

Stormzy’s German trainer fetish (“Adidas creps, don’t ask where I got them”), and Dave’s Stone Island gear (“I dunno what it costs, but I know it’s expensive”), both allude to very conscious marketing decisions from the brands to pair their products with that scene. It is the creation of iconic visual associations. With a long and enduring relationship between the two cultures, perhaps it is only right that if one is going to rise to the top, it takes the other one with it.

So how did Drake end up fully kitted out in ‘Stoney’ then? In 2016, he began collaborating with Skepta’s music label Boy Better Know. In the next 12 months, he’d release More Life, featuring guest appearances from Skepta and Giggs and laden with his new-found urban slang, and play 16 nights in the UK as part of the European leg of his Boy Meets World Tour. It saw him weave ever closer ties to the UK grime scene and by the time his tour was complete, Drake had started sporting Stone Island everywhere he went. It may be putting off the more time-hardened of the casuals, but that's nothing new.

Terrace fashion has always been in a constant state of change: for every brand that has endured every decade since its inception, there are five to ten that didn’t. The only place you’ll find Sergio Tacchini these days is TK Maxx. Throughout its history, as soon as too many fans started wearing a particular item or brand, or once the younger generation could afford the same clothes, the trendsetters would move on. The difference now is that the trends are less likely to change organically; instead it is commercially harnessed and sold to us as terrace wear.

Pep Guardiola, considered by many as the epitome of cool in both football and fashion, could regularly be spotted in Stone Island jumpers in his Manchester City press conferences. But in 2018 the labels were no longer seen on his left arm – literally. Guardiola would still wear the jumpers, but with the iconic label removed. There was speculation it was down to the club's partnership with DSquared2, a Canadian fashion house that had a similar deal producing official teamwear for Juventus in 2006. In fact, it was the pull of working with Guardiola that attracted DSquared2 to City.

In time, he began wearing (intact) Stone Island products again, mirroring his admirable persistence of proudly displaying the yellow ribbon of Catalan independence despite it being in contravention of The FA's rules. In an article for GQ discussing the matter, writer Jake Woolf misjudged Stone Island's appeal, and seemed ignorant of its history, when he claimed the brand had “no practical purpose beyond stunting on Instagram.” Old school casuals would have winced reading that - if they even understood it.

If there's an attempt to gentrify terrace wear, it's coming from partnerships such as those between football clubs and fashion houses like DSquared2 and Thom Browne, whose products sell for thousands and tens of thousands of pounds, abetted by the active pricing out of the working-class from the actual terraces. Not from grime artists.

The internet has levelled the playing field for terrace fashion. There is no first mover advantage anymore. Much like Arsene Wenger lost his edge once every other club had latched onto his innovative approach to diet, conditioning and scouting, there isn't anything - other than limited releases – rare or unattainable these days; everyone has access to everything all at once.

In that sense, the ability to be a step ahead, like the one-upmanship of the casuals in the early 80s, has all but stagnated. What we have now is well designed and well marketed terrace wear that has infiltrated wider fashion and standard wardrobes across all cultures and classes. Could football shirts follow suit?

“There are shirts that are undeniably and universally held to be classics,” The North Curve’s Graham states. “At international level, there’s Germany 1990, Holland 1988, Denmark 1986, and at club level there’s - St Etienne, Boca, AC Milan, Juventus, Flamengo. Why do we like them? For me, that's purely a design question. It's all about colours that contrast or complement each other; positive and negative space, proportion, balance, emphasis and harmony. Some designs achieve most or all of these and those are the ones that we all revere. It's the marriage of colour, shapes and cut that ultimately make any shirt, football or otherwise.

“I can't remember who said it - possibly Neal Heard in his book on football shirts - but the idea that a good football shirt can be worn as a casual shirt is true for me too. I don't think there's any difference between a good football shirt and a good casual wear shirt.”

One mark of a good shirt is if fans from other countries and clubs are wearing it, or at least running out of superlatives to praise it with. If it can do that, it has transcended tribal allegiances and entered the fray of mainstream fashion. Recently, that was most visibly achieved by Nigeria at the World Cup 2018, with 3 million pre-order sales before it even launched.

Paul, from the Football Kit Box, says the shirts that manage to do that are a “mixture of good design, something innovative, and a strong colourway,” but for a shirt to truly breach into the realm of casual wear, “the colourway needs to be simpler and have features like a distinct collar or lack of sponsor.”

It is a long-held opinion of a considerable segment of fans that adults wearing football shirts is not acceptable, but it appears that that attitude could be changing, as the connotations of wearing a shirt shifts from loutish or childish to liberal and stylish. New York Cosmos recognised the importance of strong designs and brand names 40 years ago, commissioning New York born Ralph Lauren to design their kits from 1979 to 1985, mainly manufactured by Ellesse, another terrace staple.

For all its faults on the field and in player development, according to The Kitsman, a Twitter account dedicated to kit reviews and bargain-hunting, the MLS has its finger on the pulse when it comes to creating shirts that easily slide into casualwear.

“I've got a shirt which is my go-to casual shirt - I've worn it more times out than I can remember. It's the 2016/17 DC United shirt; it's what I call a ‘wear with jeans shirt.’ I think that can be said with most MLS shirts, they have this sort of minimal design that can pass off as a shirt you can wear out. The MLS badge adds a lot to it too, I'm a big fan of the brand in general. They've got this modern stamp, take the DC United badge for example, it's very young and hip and that again can be said of most MLS club badges.”

The football shirt culture has infiltrated the US market too.

“Being an American I can definitely tell you that soccer jerseys pop up at NFL, NBA, and college games much more regularly than they used to,” Icarus Football’s Robbie Smulker tells me.

The designer and US-based kit supplier with a growing list of customers, continues: “The closest thing you’ll find to a sort of casualwear culture over here is college football, but you see far more soccer jerseys in public than any other sport - at least in Philadelphia. Soccer jerseys are more comfortable and a better fit than American football, basketball and hockey. Also, I think there is a sort of signalling that happens by wearing a soccer jersey. You don’t see a lot of MAGA hats with soccer jerseys, if you see what I’m getting at.”

In the market for the wardrobe space of football fans, there has been a growing share of the pie for something that is neither football shirts nor the terrace wear of the casuals. Enter the likes of Art of Football. What they offer is clothing inspired by the yesteryear of football and artistic portraits and landscapes of sacred moments from the football archives. One reason for their increasing popularity may well be an implicit rejection of official merchandise from supporters and an expression of disdain for the cynical commercialisation and homogenisation of the sport. Instead, fans would rather support a local or independent retailer creating innovatively than a global conglomerate pumping out template kits. Another potential cause is a simple purchasing habit - not unique to the football casual - that defined the beginning of terrace wear.

Obscurity and expense in the early 80s were valued highly, and as a piece of clothing became standardised and increasingly visible on the terraces, it would drop out of fashion and then the task was starting the next trend. This can now be replicated by donning unique clothing offered by the likes of Art of Football and is a behaviour observable in wider youth fashion with brands such as Supreme, Yeezys, and Palace, building entire business models around limited releases, retro fashion, and collaborative projects.

“I’m not sure a lot of us can connect with the modern game as much,” Gabe Cuthbert, the creative director behind Art of Football, told me, “there's nothing personable about a player wearing a brand head to toe. The skin-tight shirts weren't designed for those of us partial to a Wetherpoons burger and Kronenbourg. A lot of the shirts are templates that get used for many different teams. We all have our own unique love story with football, and I feel that retro clothing does a better job at paying homage to that.”

It’s a sentiment some of their contemporaries agree with.

“There is a current lack of creativity in club wear,” Carl from The Terrace, an online fan-led football clothing and merchandise store, says. “It’s more important [for clubs] to have supplier logos and off the shelf templates to save on cost than a bit of creativity and meaning. We stand by the little details, noticing of late flat sublimated badges letting down shirts. That embroidered badge or that little meaning behind a pattern goes a long way.”

And Ross, the guy behind Leyburn Sports, the kit providers for CONIFA teams such as Matabeleland and Rohingya, believes the nostalgia and retro aspect of current football fashion is driven by its longevity and affordability.

“A plain shirt with no resonance will not stand the test of time. Nostalgic kits have become a huge part of casualwear and that is always for a particular reason with that shirt. Retro shirts can also be worn for multiple seasons, whereas if you buy the latest shirt, it is already unpopular by the end of the year when the new design comes in. Retro shirts have had their season, but their time as a classic means the popularity extends its usage. In the modern day, where a new shirt is released each season, fans can stick with their favourite and not worry about spending big.”

It is something Ross feels strongly about and believes that more than ever, there’s a real sense of identity in what fans choose to wear; something that should be obvious to the big brands and football clubs but is increasingly amiss.

“I feel the trip down memory lane with retro styles of polos and sweaters is a nod to what people love most about football. When you are first introduced to football, it grips you quickly and many people fall madly in love with it. Whether that be your first trip to a live game or watching on television in your front room with your family - it’s a feeling that most don't forget. I feel that connection is something people want to emulate when they wear the retro items. This could be seen as fans turning against modern football - the game has changed so much in a short space of time - but I genuinely feel the main reason for retro items is the love of the game and that reconnection with their introduction to football. Maybe the love for the game and style they fell in love with, compared to modern football, is the real reason to be against the modern game.”

It’s not a unanimous consensus though. North Curve’s founder Graham takes a more business minded view on the matter: “I'm not sure people are consciously turning their backs on modern football through their clothes. I think it's just a general truth that nostalgia sells. We all hit 40 eventually and naturally start to look back and try to recapture some of the magic of the time. Football is not immune to that. The polos and sweaters are another nod to the late 80s and 90s mod and Manchester style.”

North Curve’s main seller are their retro shirt cushions, and Graham explains their appeal: “My products speak to the football shirt fan in all of us, I hope. There are certain shirts that we'll likely never see, let alone own. My cushions give people something to own that at least gives a feeling of the original shirts. Or that's the idea. Nostalgia isn't a modern thing, I don't think. Every generation likes to think they invented it.”

Robby Smulker is in agreement: “As a society we love old things. We yearn for the past. Throwback jerseys and retro wear are just another opportunity to express a deep-rooted connection to a team.” And it’s this understanding of the market that drives Robby’s creations.

“The biggest inspiration for my designs is the history of the area a club is from; flags, seals, maps and symbols are what I tend to look at first before diving into the design. Also, the team’s logo of course will drive a lot of the ideas. But truthfully, I take the lead from my clients. We try to make their vision come to life as close as possible.”

It seems an obvious method, but Leyburn Sports believes it is what sets his shirts out, too.

“We always try to create something that is different and something that connects with the client. We start by researching each client: it can be something as simple as a Google search or a detailed call with different people in the club’s hierarchy. Either way, we try to find something that makes that client stand out. We iron out the finer details, like preferred colours, suggested design features and colours we need to stay away from due to rivalry! We then come up with three or four different designs. We allow the club’s hierarchy to pick different features from other designs that they may prefer and then come back with a final design. It can sometimes be a long process with plenty of drafts and phone calls, but it's worth it for the final okay and the go ahead to proceed with manufacturing, knowing we have captured the essence of a football club.”

As football shirts and fashion permeate the high street, there is an undisputed champion when it comes to its inspiration.

“Without a doubt it’s the 90s in our eyes – a period crucial to our business. Our track jacket was an inspired piece to relive that era after input from Ipswich fans,” said Carl.

“For me, the 90's saw a huge shift in the way football is consumed,” Ross believes, “there was obviously the beginning of the Premier League and television rights, but it also brought an era of fantastic kits. As we have seen in the recent World Cup, it was an era that has heavily influenced fans, both nationally and internationally. Templates were barely seen, with most clubs having unique designs. The rise of television during this period allowed for kits to be seen on a massive scale. It was the beginning of a new culture. We saw all sorts of shirts worldwide. There were bright colours, unique patterns and varying collars. When we begin our design process, I try to instil and reimagine that feeling I had as a young lad who adored these incredible shirts, and I hope that is replicated with our designs.”

“The 90s Premier League seems to be the starting point for where we at nowadays,” says Paul, “It's a strong reference point for many and it seems to be the era most people get nostalgic for. I think we are embarking on the second golden generation of kit and hopefully the end of boring teamwear templates. The information and technology are there, and I would love to see more non-league and youth teams adopt bespoke design kit rather than just pick from a catalogue. I'd love to help those teams achieve that and encourage anyone reading this to get in touch if interested.”

Robby says it is the same in The States: ”90s Premier League and World Cups are the biggest influence. The 90s MLS had some low key, really good designs too. I also love 70s French league jerseys with the massive sponsor logos, and the early J-League jerseys. One thing that combines all of these eras is their boldness.”

Whether you prefer to wear your football shirt, an all-weather parka, or a graphic tee or jumper on matchdays; whether you’re happy in a football shirt on any day of the week, at any occasion, or you believe the only suitable place for one is at 5-a-side or on an actual footballer; the resurgence is real and happening, the 1990s, be it on the pitch or on the high-street, has defined it, and its infiltrating every sphere of society. Football is a global language and clothing is polyglottal.

Viva the shirt. Viva the casual. Viva the terrace.


Words by Jordan Florit. Artwork by FATC - All Rights Reserved


Jordan Florit