We don’t really know. But we spoke to some people who do.
It’s 1992. Dave from Hull might only wear cheap polos and indigo jeans the rest of the time, because he doesn’t want to look like one of those ‘soft’ people that he’s always piping on about down at the Swan. But you can bet at the weekend, he’s going to throw on a bright orange shirt, with a vivid tiger print all over it, and make a tit of himself chanting ‘mauled by the tigers’.
He doesn’t care that it’s actually amber, and he doesn’t care that he’s in the midst of what football historians will come to call football kits’ ‘baroque era’. He doesn’t care that back in 2019, thanks to Versace and Paco Rabanne, animal prints are actually having a bit of a moment. But Hull are his team, and he’ll wear whatever kit the manufacturers release at the start of the season. Blindly unto the breach of gnarly orange kits he goes.
That kit is now going for nearly 200 quid online. Not that Dave gives a shit.
But what makes a ‘classic’ football shirt? It’s hard to tell. But we asked a few people who were both informed and confident enough to give it a stab.
Alan Bond is a content creator from Mundial, who have collaborated with the company Classic Football Shirts in curating an exhibition of Umbro’s best kits, to celebrate their 95th anniversary.
“It’s the design, isn’t it?” He asks. “I don’t think it’s classic until it’s got a legacy behind it, but it’s the design aspects that make it classic. I think it’s just something that fans can really relate to, in terms of the history of the specific club. It’s a very unique thing – as you look at some of these shirts, you kind of visualise a player, as soon as you see the shirt.”
So, like a time capsule – an aesthetic signifier of a specific moment in a club’s history, a tangible link to the glory of days past. “Like the Ajax one from 1995,” Alan says. “I just think, what that team achieved, bringing in the team through their own academy, was brilliant. And they achieved excellence with winning the Champions League.”
But aren’t the moments that happen in a kit important? Cantona with his arms in the air like the messiah. Bobby Moore lifted in the air in ‘66, Jules Rimet in hand. Cruyff and Holland ‘74. Henry in the claret shirt, kissing the ground after Arsenal’s last goal at Highbury.
“It’s kind of a tug of war between the design and the achievements,” says Denis Hurley, a freelance journalist who runs Museum of Jerseys (museumofjerseys.com), a website dedicated to football kits and their history.
“I would say it’s close to fifty fifty. A design that comes to my mind straight away is the Nottingham Forest 1992 home shirt, red with white pinstripes – it was a really classy design – but they got relegated in it. A quarter of a century on, it’s still regarded as a good shirt.
“Then, you’ve got a pretty ordinary shirt which a team does well in, which is still well regarded. The Brazil 1970 jersey is a nice shirt, but it’s very plain, just yellow with green collar and cuff. But because Brazil won the world cup, playing such good football, it makes it memorable.”
But you need a decent aesthetic foundation to build on, he says. “I don’t think achievement will make a bad shirt good.” He uses the 2005 Liverpool shirt as an example – the year that they beat AC Milan in debatably the greatest Champions League final of all time. “I don’t think it’s looked on with any great fondness. There has to be some positive aspects to the shirt in the first place, and then the achievements will help to lift it up another couple of notches.” You could win the treble and stop climate change, but if the design’s bad, you’ve got no chance.
So perhaps the word we’re looking for is nostalgia. That’s at least what Dr Chris Stride says, a statistician and sports historian from the University of Sheffield, who over the last 6 years has published between 10 and 15 papers on aspects of material culture in football, as well as other sports. That’s right, we got a doctor. We don’t mess about.
“I think nostalgia is what generates in people’s minds the idea of a ‘classic’ shirt. They don’t mean a ‘classic football shirt’, they mean a ‘classic football shirt’ from their childhoods,” he says. But there have to be moments that spark the nostalgia.
“Football matches can be those moments, and it’s not necessarily just the match, it’s the time spent with friends at the match, and the emotions stirred by the match. Therefore, kits worn by teams in famous games, games that are more likely to be memorable, that are going to be great moments in a club’s history, are therefore more likely to make a classic football kit.”
So it’s a bit of a cocktail, really. A bit of nostalgia, a few nice moments that happened whilst players did their thing wearing a shirt. But, you can win all you want – if it’s ugly as hell, it’s not going to work.
Kieran Ahuja is co-founder, writer and creative director for 5WFootball. Follow him on Twitter here.