Wonderful article by Dave Moor originally from Historical Football Kits (HFK) tracing the early origins of the football kit.
The Victorian Period (1857-1899)
The game of football is generally considered to date back to the mob football games played in the Middle Ages between rival villages without rules and with unlimited players on each side. The Royal Shrovetide football match is a supposed survival of this early form of the game. Modern scholarship has, however, revealed that small-side games, played by young men according to locally agreed rules, were commonplace and as such, went largely unrecorded.
The first recognised rules of football were laid down by English public schools to govern inter-house competition and fell broadly into two groups; the handling game developed at Rugby School and the dribbling game that emerged from Eton, although other schools such as Harrow, Winchester, Uppingham, Shrewsbury, Marlborough and Charterhouse all had their own versions. In keeping with the philosophies of the public schools of the time, these games were extraordinarily violent.
When the young men from these schools went up to university they formed football clubs but games descended into chaos as there was no consensus on the rules. The first attempt to draw up a uniform set of rules took place at Cambridge University in 1848. Although the originals are lost, a set of Cambridge Rules from 1856 survives in the library of Shrewsbury School.
The first football clubs also emerged around this time, most notably Sheffield FC (1857 – the world’s oldest club), Hallam (1860) and Notts County (1862). This led to the development of local rules (specifically “Sheffield Rules” and “Nottingham Rules”), which were widely adopted by the newly emerging clubs in the north and midlands. Scotland’s oldest club, Queen’s Park also developed their own unique code. The majority of games took place within a club, school or university and it took some time for the notion of inter-club matches to catch on. When they did teams might consist of 9 to 18 players and it was common for different codes to be used in the first and second halves.
There were no uniform kits: players would turn out in whatever they had to hand and teams would be distinguished by wearing distinctively coloured caps, scarves or sashes over cricket whites (many clubs were formed by cricketers seeking a team game for the winter) or whatever else players had to hand. The first reference to “colours” comes from the rules of Sheffield FC in 1857, which stated:
“Each player must provide himself with a red and dark blue flannel cap, one colour to be worn by each side.”
In 1863 leading players formed the Football Association and drew up the first set of national laws of the game, drawing upon the Cambridge Rules and those of the Sheffield Club. Spectators were generally regarded as a nuisance and the game was a robust pursuit for gentlemen from public schools. The leading clubs of the day were formed by old boys of the major public schools (Old Etonians, Old Carthusians etc), by officers serving in the Army (Royal Engineers) and at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
The introduction of the English FA Cup in 1871-72 marked a turning point as it required all participating teams to play by the FA Rules. Furthermore, the difficulty of telling two teams apart prompted one newspaper correspondent reporting on Birmingham Association’s appearance in the FA Cup to write in 1879:
“In football it is a most essential point that the members of one team should be clearly distinguished from those of the other. The only way this can be effected is for each club to have a distinct uniform as the diversity of dress displayed yesterday not only confused the members of the team but the spectators were quite unable to say whether a man belonged to one team or the other.”
The first uniform kits began to appear around 1870. In England colours were often those of the public schools and sports clubs with which the game was associated: Blackburn Rovers first wore white jerseys adorned with the blue Maltese Cross of Shrewsbury School, where several of their founders were educated. Reading first played in the salmon pink, pale blue and claret colours of the rowing club that spawned them. Caps, cowls and other headgear were de rigeur throughout the decade.
In first FA Cup final in 1872, Wanderers wore pink, black and cerise while their opponents, The Royal Engineers played in dark red and navy shirts. The game was played almost exclusively by men from the upper middle class and minor aristocracy, men who could afford to buy a shirt in their club’s colours from their tailor. That said, plain white shirts were very popular, being both relatively cheap and easily obtainable. As one might expect, given that players bought their own jerseys, there was considerable variation within a team. Early photographs of The Wednesday, for example, show players wearing hoops of varying widths.
In Scotland the game was pioneered by Queen’s Park FC (formed 1867) who affiliated to the (English) Football Association and helped form the Scottish FA in 1873. The Scottish team that played England in the first ever international wore the navy blue shirts of Queen’s Park – the club did not adopt their famous narrow hoops until October 1873.
The English game continued to be dominated by former public school clubs until the early 1880s but in Scotland, association football was taken up enthusiastically by the working class in the central belt of Scotland during the 1870s. The formation of Hibernian FC in 1875 by impoverished Irish emigres living in Edinburgh marked another departure from the game’s English upper middle class origins. With the active support of the Catholic church, similar clubs sprang up all over Scotland, wearing green and white to celebrate their Irish roots. The sectarianism that was a feature of Scottish life quickly became apparent: blue (usually navy), white and red are the colours of Unionism (and were the original colours of Hearts, for example) and became associated with the Presbyterian establishment while green and white were universally adopted by the clubs with roots in the poor Catholic minority. These sectarian affiliations faded away over time with the notable exception of the intense rivalry between Rangers and Celtic.
The first manufacturer of sports wear in the UK was Bukta who were established in 1879.
When Darwen, a team of cotton mill workers met the Old Etonians in the FA Cup semi-final of 1879, two worlds collided. Darwen were derided for wearing trousers cut off at the knee (held up by braces) instead of knickerbockers and a motley collection of shirts. The Darreners took the gentlemen-players from Eton to two replays before they were beaten, exhausted by working full shifts at the cotton-mills and repeated train journeys to London. Nevertheless this match is regarded as the turning point between the old establishment of gentleman-players and the new breed of working-class clubs emerging in Lancashire and the Midlands.
Players’ tops were often described as “jerseys” (a close fitting knitted garment without a collar) and occasionally as “guernseys” (a heavier garment similar to a jersey and associated with fishermen). Burnley’s tops in 1884 were described as blue and white “sarks,” which means a loose fitting chemise or shirt (with collar). HFK associate Alick Milne, has suggested that if players placed their nuts in an “Aldernay” the association with the Channel Islands would be complete.
Popular designs were self-coloured or hooped, (described as “striped”). Vertical stripes did not appear until circa 1883, when the term “shirts” appeared for the first time. While it was technically possibly to produce vertical striped tops before this, it may have been cheaper to produce knitted garments in horizontal stripes. I speculate that the introduction of vertically striped shirts in the early 1880s was a result of mass participation in the game that stimulated a dramatic growth in demand for tops in distinctive colours that could be produced at economic prices. Economies of scale may have helped Bukta, for example, offer a range of shirts, knickers and stockings in a limited number of patterns at a price that local gentlemen’s outfitters were unable to compete with.
The term “quartered” was used to describe shirts or jerseys where the main body was made from four newton heath 1891 team photoseparate panels, such as worn by Newton Heath and Blackburn Rovers, a design which became known as “halved” in the 1890s. The term “harlequin” was used to describe the pattern we now call “quartered” (as worn most famously and much later by Bristol Rovers). This confusion of terms is not just a challenge to modern chroniclers: various contemporary sketches published in newspapers of the time portray teams wearing “quarters” when photographic evidence indicates they were “halved.” Blackburn Rovers persisted in describing their halved shirts as “quartered” until the outbreak of World War Two.
Players who were picked for their county or international team often had the appropriate badge sewn onto their jerseys. Recent research by HFK contributor Jim Jenkinson suggests that the Dumbarton players in this picture represented a Scottish Counties XI in dumbarton fc 1883matches with the Glasgow, Birmingham, and Lancashire FAs (whose crests we believe they are sporting) while those in caps had recently played for the national team. If you refer back to the 1873-74 picture of Queen’s Park above, you will notice that several capped players have the Scottish lion rampant crudely sewn onto their jerseys with swatches of the original navy jerseys.
Over time the exotic colour combinations of the earliest era of organised English football began to disappear. I believe two factors were at work here, one practical and the other economic. The early rules made players in front of the ball “offside” (as in rugby football) and the game featured forwards who would dribble the ball towards their opponent’s goal supported by a mob of players. Changes in the rules allowed players to pass the ball forward (a tactic pioneered by Queen’s Park FC) making it essential that the player in possession could distinguish his colleagues from opponents. While multi-coloured shirts might look attractive as the players trot onto the pitch, they can be difficult to pick out on a gloomy winter afternoon, especially when covered with mud. It is interesting to note that rugby union clubs generally retained their multi-coloured shirts, perhaps because the offside rule means that only players behind the ball are in play (so there is less need to pick out a team mate at a distance or in front of play).
Economic factors were probably more significant. A survey of Scottish clubs in the 1870s and early 1880s reveals that most clubs played in plain jerseys (navy, red, maroon, green or rarely white) or narrow hoops in a combination of two colours. Remember that players had to buy their own kit in those days: the working class lads that took up the sport in Scotland would not be inclined to join clubs that required expensive colour combinations associated with public schools or universities that they had no connection with.
During the 1880s the balance of power in England shifted decisively from the upper middle class clubs of the south towards the industrial heartlands of the midlands and northwest. It is now thought that Darwen FC were the first to offer illicit inducements to Scottish players when they poached Fergie Suter, a stonemason who played for Partick Thistle after a friendly between the clubs in 1878. Suter was unable to continue his trade (the local stone in Lancashire being unworkable) but appeared to continue to live comfortably. The club denied paying him but Suter, disarmingly later said “I would interview the treasurer as occasion arose.”
Rows over broken time payments, poaching, financial inducements or the offer of a job (with paid time off for training) became a serious issue and led in 1885 to a decision by the FA to recognise professionalism in England. At the same time a lack of any formal structure to fixtures (which led to teams failing to show up if they could arrange a more lucrative fixture) was bringing the game into disrepute and undermining the need for the new professional teams to generate revenue.
The Football League was formed in 1888 to address this issue and provide the leading clubs with regular fixtures against each other. These clubs were controlled by self-made men with successful careers in the new industries of the late Victorian period and whose interest was in the potential of association football as a commercial venture. Grounds were enclosed so that turnstiles could be installed and spectators charged admission. As association football developed as a spectator sport, the importance of supporters being able to pick out their own team from a distance became evident, giving added impetus to the development of simple kits in contrasting, primary colours. One of the consequences of the introduction of professionalism in England was that the best players in Scotland were induced to move south to play for wages. The Scottish Football League was formed in 1890 but payments to players were not permitted in Scotland until 1893: even then most clubs could not afford to match the wages on offer in England and the drain of talent to the south remained a bone of contention well into the 1980s.
Once clubs became professional the expense of buying playing kits fell on the club rather than the players. Secretary-managers with an eye for the accounts naturally preferred to spend as little as possible reinforcing the trend towards simpler kits in basic colours.
When Wolves travelled to Sunderland in September 1890, both the hosts and visitors turned out in red and white stripes. To avoid a repetition, clubs were instructed at the AGM of 1891 to register their colours for the following season, with a stipulation that no two clubs could register the same colours. This cutting from the 11 July 1891 edition of the Burnley Express (click for a larger image) indicates that Stoke and Darwen were waiting to see what colours Burnley would register while Wolves adopted orange and blue to avoid clashing with Sunderland.
This rule was relaxed when the Second Division was added in 1892 and it became a requirement that each club should have a set of white tops to be worn when colours clashed (presumably teams that normally wore white had coloured alternatives.) The team that had been members of the Football League the longest was entitled to play in their regular strip. As a rule the home team changed when colours clashed.
In 1891 Aston Villa wore claret jerseys with contrasting light blue sleeves and a distinctive neck band for the first time. Different shirts were adopted over the following two seasons before this style reappeared in 1894, remaining substantially unchanged for over 60 years. This combination was the first truly iconic football shirt and was widely copied.
Heavy shin guards were worn outside the socks. In England the colour of stockings were not registered until the turn of the century. Scottish FA records do, however, record include “hose,” which were usually self-coloured and sometimes horizontally striped.
Knickerbockers, which had to cover the knees were only available in white, black or navy blue (occasionally grey). It was not unusual for clubs to switch from one colour to another or indeed for players in the same team to wear differently coloured knickers. Some clubs registered their knickers simply as being “dark.” Players called up for international duty were provided with a shirt by their FA but had to bring their own knickers and socks: HFK has evidence that the England team turned out in a mixture of white, navy and black knickers at least until 1897.
One of the difficulties of recording kits from this period is that until 1890, there was no requirement on clubs to register their colours with the Football League so we must rely on press coverage and other sources.
By the close of the century most of the leading clubs were wearing strips that would be recognisable today.
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Main photo: Darwen FC v Arsenal courtesy: Darwen Days website