How, When and Why Did Adult Fans Adopt Replica Football Shirts? 

An academic study into the adoption of replica football shirts by adult supporters in England has been published by the journal, Sport in History.

Accepting the challenge that sports history should be centred in statistical analysis, the study reveals that the fashion for wearing replica football shirts was driven by fans rather than by manufacturers.

Chris Stride along with colleagues Nick Catley and Joe Headland from the University of Sheffield surveyed over 4,000 fans, a host of designers and sportswear manufacturers, whilst analysing more than 2,000 crowd photos as well as a vast array of adverts from 1960-2000, to answer when and why adult supporters began to embrace football shirts as acceptable terrace and leisure attire.

Four distinct facets of this process were examined –

  1. Production of adult sizes by manufacturers
  2. Promotion of replica shirts by clubs and retailers
  3. Purchasing by adults
  4. ‘Parading’, i.e. wearing of shirts to matches

The determined supporter has been able to source football shirts since the end of the 19th century and catalogues have long been produced by firms such as Umbro and Bukta.

Umbro Catalogue, 1935
Umbro Catalogue, 1935 (Image supplied by Paul Lukas, courtesy of Umbro Ltd ©).

The dress code of English adult supporters evolved slowly from the long coats and flat caps of Pathé newsreels towards the colourful hats, scarves and badges observed by the anthropologist Desmond Morris in The Soccer Tribe.

Whilst children had dressed like their heroes since the 1950s, adult sized replica shirts remained scarce and the preserve of the more eccentric fan in all but the biggest games and cup finals where a tradition of “fancy dress” was deemed to be acceptable.

Watford season-ticket holder Chris Stride, and his team of statisticians from Sheffield University’s Institute of Work Psychology found that the first surge in the adoption of replica shirts pre-dates the more commonly cited moments for football’s revival and subsequent gentrification, such as the 1990 World Cup and the formation of the Premier League.

Leeds United/TopMan Kit Advert, 1989
Leeds United/TopMan Kit Advert, 1989 (Image courtesy of Leeds United FC/TopMan ©).

Changes in wider youth culture and the environment surrounding football led to English supporters claiming the replica shirt as their own and demanding their production in adult sizes.

As fans rejected hooliganism, the risk of being attacked for wearing club colours began to decline and adult fans became more expressive in their support of their clubs, as evidenced by the growth in the fanzine culture of the mid to late 1980s.

Football was cool again, and by extension, so were football shirts.

The study shows that the improvement in the image of the game, gave fans who had grown up wearing replica kits, the confidence to want to wear them in adulthood.

England, Three Lions, Italia 90, Umbro
England’s Three Lions on Umbro’s World Cup Italia ’90 shirt

By the early 1990s, the wider adoption of replica kits led to them being marketed as adult leisurewear rather than sportswear, encouraging clubs to strike far more lucrative shirt deals with kit manufacturers.

The response created a new revenue stream for clubs and aligned perfectly with the introduction of the Premier League, all-seater stadiums and satellite television.

Clubs focused their attention on attracting new audiences with older, middle-class and family-centered fan demographics, creating a second jump in the numbers wearing replica shirts to matches.

Stride says: “Several factors were behind the shift from child to adult sales: it was as much the gradual removal of barriers such as widespread hooliganism, the growth and professionalisation of retail outlets for football merchandise, and the sense that sportswear was acceptable leisurewear for adults as well as for children, that enabled the replica shirt industry to develop.

“The timeline for the adoption of replica shirts maps neatly onto the gentrification of football as a whole.

“Just as the fan activism of the late 1980s helped create the initial, though oft-ignored revival in football’s fortunes prior to the formation of the Premier League, the surge in shirt wearing by young adults in this period helped create a market that manufacturers then exploited and expanded.”
For the full story behind the growth of the replica football shirt market in England, Chris Stride’s complete study is available at:

Shirt Tales: How Adults Adopted The Replica Football Kit

Newcastle United FC fans, 1974 FA Cup Final, Wembley, May 1974 (Image courtesy of PA Images (C)).

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