The Evolution of England’s Football Kits: A Journey Through Time and Fashion

Last Updated: June 13, 2024By

 

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Back in March, there was quite the buzz about Nike’s tweak on the classic red and white St George’s Cross for the England Euros shirt. Even the bigwigs in politics were weighing in on it. Keir Starmer, the main opposition honcho, was all for scrapping the whole kit and caboodle. But now, a fresh exhibit is shedding light on the diverse interpretations of England’s football shirts and their emblems since way back in the 1950s.

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Umbro 100: Where Sportswear Meets Style, currently on show at Ambika Gallery, University of Westminster, is like a time machine through the history of Manchester’s own Umbro. They’ve been kitting out the England squad for most of the time between 1954 and 2012 (though Admiral had a hand in it too), so naturally, England’s football jerseys take center stage here. One standout is the 2011 design by Peter Saville, the brain behind the iconic imagery of Factory Records back in the 80s and the recent Burberry logo revamp. In his version, the cross went purple. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much of a hullabaloo about it.

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You’ll also catch glimpses of the red kit England rocked when they clinched the 1966 World Cup (Umbro whipped up the kits for both England and Germany), the funky pixelated blue number from 1990 that never saw game day but got its fame from New Order’s “World In Motion” video, and a retro running vest boasting a bold red rose smack dab in the middle from ’59. Plus, there’s a whole spectrum of fashion-forward twists on the England shirts, thanks to collabs with the likes of Palace, Kim Jones, Paul Smith, and of course, Saville.

 

Redefining Englishness, One Jersey at a Time

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According to the curator, Andrew Groves, this mishmash of styles reflects how our idea of “Englishness” keeps getting a makeover. “Take the England rose, for instance. It’s actually the Tudor rose, symbolizing the union of Lancaster and York. People are always tinkering with these symbols, giving them a modern spin.”

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He reckons the uproar over Nike’s rainbow Cross was mainly due to poor communication. “They didn’t bother explaining the ‘why’ behind it,” he says. “With Saville, they made a point of linking the colors to the crest, blending them together to make that purple shade. It’s all about celebrating the diversity of Britain.”

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Groves knows firsthand that designing an England shirt to please everyone is like walking a tightrope. “You want to keep the fans happy but also push the envelope. It’s tough, especially when the only time folks seem to care is every [two] years during tournaments. And when you throw in the whole mess of what Englishness means today, well, it’s a minefield.”

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More Than Just Jerseys

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But the exhibit isn’t just about England’s football shirts. It’s a testament to Umbro’s long-standing love affair with collaboration, a trend that’s now par for the course in the sports-meets-fashion world. Founded back in 1924 by the Humphreys brothers in Wilmslow, Umbro’s first foray into the game was a tennis shirt in ’55, designed with the help of Teddy Tinling, the go-to guy for tennis gear. It even graced the likes of four Wimbledon champs.

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And let’s not forget the recent collabs. There’s an Ajax shirt jazzed up by Dutch streetwear kings Patta, a Palace football shirt featuring a flyer from The Sanctuary, a club in Milton Keynes, a slick Supreme football, and the holy grail of kicks: the Off-White x Umbro sneakers courtesy of Virgil Abloh.

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While Umbro might not be the talk of the town like Adidas or Nike these days, its footprint in football kit history is colossal. It suited up teams like Brazil, Germany, and Scotland, not to mention top clubs like Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, and the reds of Manchester United. “Early on, they figured out that if they hitched their wagon to winning teams, they’d bask in their glory,” Groves explains. “They even had both teams in the FA Cup final sporting Umbro gear. Win or lose, Umbro came out on top.”

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