November 05, 2020

Through the Decades - Football Kits

Football Association (FA) rules about what a professional football player can wear on the field are relatively simple, though the 'Law' denoting kit requirements has been evolving for over more than a century.

Essentially, the Laws of the Game, specifically Law 4, state that a player must have a kit that comprises a shirt (with sleeves), socks, shorts, boots and shin pads. Goalkeepers may wear tracksuit bottoms instead of shorts - it can get a little chilly in goal depending on the state of play!

Additionally, kit must not comprise anything dangerous that could harm the wearer or other players during the game. There are also stipulations regarding strip colours to avoid clashes on the field, and rules banning non-approved advertising and slogans - a spate of players lifting their shirts to display personal, even political and religious messages on undershirts gave rise to that addition in the 1990s.

Image: On the road again/

With relative freedom in terms of style and substance, players' kits have changed regularly over the years. Kits have been designed to improve team identification and create a club culture, to enhance comfort and performance, to adhere to the sensibilities of certain eras, and, of course, to follow whatever the current fashion trends have been.

Considering men simply wore their working clothes when football first took off as an organised sport, the journey to today's technical kits, and of course, the revenue they generate, has been marked with some interesting milestones.

The Evolution of the Strip

Photographs from the late 19th century show how players dressed for matches in the early days of football. For most teams, the kit consisted of white, long-sleeved, cotton, flannelette (roughly woven cotton) or woollen shirts, long flannel (roughly woven wool) trousers, woollen socks, heavy ankle boots and, sometimes, coloured caps. It wasn't particularly easy for fans, match officials, and even players themselves to differentiate between teams on the field.

Hessle 2nds (East Yorkshire) Football team 1885-86

It was suggested, in the 1867 game handbook, that opposing teams should have colour variations in their kit. However, it wasn't until the 1870s that standard strips were organised. From this point onwards, coloured and patterned flannelette shirts became the norm - teams generally chose their colours to reflect the town, school, association they were affiliated to. Around this time, trousers were also abandoned for knickerbockers – loose trousers gathered at or just below the knee. Players started wearing shin pads to protect their shins during the game. And, football boots, heavy leather creations that players had previously nailed strips leather on to for grip, began to have studs.

At the start of the 20th century, some players started to wear above the knee shorts (known as 'knickers'). Polite society frowned upon this new style of kit and the FA passed a rule that required shorts to cover the knees. From then on, kit rules came thick and fast.

Italy National Association Football Team, Bologna 29 may 1927,

  • To avoid on-field colour clashes, clubs had to register the colour and design of their players' shirts and socks with the association, and all team players had to wear the same coloured kit.
  • Goalies were required to wear jerseys in a differing colour to their team's shirts - either scarlet, blue or white. Green was added to the list at a later date, and in 1921 FIFA ruled that goalies should wear yellow jerseys for international matches.
  • Referees and linesmen had to wear different colours from the players – usually black.
  • Teams were all required to have an 'away strip' in an alternative colour. If an occasion arose where two competing teams had the same coloured kits, the away team wore their alternative strip.

Soccer Team in 1926, Fortepan,
CC BY-SA 3.0

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, football increased in popularity, the game and the industry grew, and expanded internationally. Throughout this period, the nature of the game changed. Players became fitter, increasing the intensity of the game. Play became more creative and technical, improving the skill of the game. Increased competition between clubs amplified the desire to have equipment that enhanced the chances of beating one's opponent. Alongside advances in technology and available materials, the impact of fashion, and the revenue streams created from replica kits and sponsorship, football kit went through some of its most significant changes.

Lightweight, synthetic fabrics replaced heavier materials in shirts and shorts. Shorts got shorter and shorter and then got a bit longer again. Shirts became lighter, more colourful, more attractive and better styled. Players began to wear their squad number and name on their shirts. Lighter, cut down ankle boots, favoured by South American footballers, rapidly became the boot of choice. Screw-in studs became available for the first time, progressing to moulded studs and blades. Boots started to come in a variety of materials, with new designs and shaping for better performance. Sponsorship of kit and individual players began, and fans started to buy replica kit, sparking a new race to have the most stand out, best-performing products on the market.

Image: Photograph of the Finnish soccer players Raimo Pajo of HJK (right) and Jussi Ristimäki of Ilves-Kissat at a game in Helsinki. May, 1969

Kit in the 2000s

Technological advances this century mean that the evolution of the footballer's kit continues at a pace.

Football socks are now designed and shaped to fit comfortably, to protect and support the leg and cushion the foot. They are lightweight, repel moisture and prevent foot odour. A range of materials are used to produce these effects – cotton, nylon, elastic, spandex and polyester.

Shin pads, which started as bulky, cut-down cricket pads, need to be ultra-lightweight and unobtrusive for today's fast game. Fibreglass, foam rubber and polyurethane have become the norm for shin pad construction, but, using the latest technology, new materials have been developed. One of these works using the player's body heat, to mould the pad to the player's shin – fitting perfectly and providing personalised protection; another is constructed with material that remains soft, flexible and ultimately comfortable until, on impact, it immediately becomes rigid.

Image: Malinda Gany/

Football shirts are now cut to fit tightly and are made of polyester, which is strong and durable and does not absorb rainwater, so the shirt remains lightweight even when wet. Modern shirts are lined with moisture-wicking polyester fabrics. Systems such as Climalite, Dri-Fit and Climacool have wicking linings that draw moisture away from the body to evaporate at the outer surface of the shirt by capillary action - keeping the player dry, cool and comfortable throughout the match. Tight-fitting shirts help the wicking to work well.

Likewise, football shorts need to be light and comfortable. Many are made of strong, lightweight, water-resistant polyester, but increasingly the Climalite, Dri-Fit and Climacool systems used in football shirts are also being used.

Football boots now include laceless versions and advances in laser technology allow boots to be custom-made for players. Much research has gone into finding the most lightweight, waterproof, comfortable and high-performance football boot. New materials have been influential in achieving this aim. These include different types of hide – kangaroo and goatskin – and new polymer materials. By intelligent design and strategic placement of these materials, boots can deliver better power and direction in the kick; the player can turn more quickly and grip to the pitch more firmly.


A Game Changer

While the race to develop the latest, best performing kit to support players on the pitch rages on, so does the race to sponsor a club or a player.

Football is now the basis of a huge global industry. The revenue from sports equipment, kit and replica kit is mind-boggling, and sports brands can reach many millions of players and spectators around the world through sponsorship. And so, manufacturers and designers are continually developing new and improved versions of the five simple, basic items - keeping the wheels of the industry turning.

This is all a far cry from the white woollen shirts, trousers, socks and heavy boots of just over a hundred years ago.


For more football related ‘Through The Decades’ articles, check out our Quick Reads section on the Football Buzz page:

Main Image: artnana/

Published: April 18, 2020
Last updated: November 05, 2020
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