Football Fashion and Casuals: Sportswear's Globalization and Normalization
Football Fashion and Casuals: Sportswear's Globalization and Normalization
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date May 10, 2018
In today’s day and age, brands are no longer confined geographically. Thanks to the internet and social media, brands from Asia can pop off in North America, a British brand can gain a cult following in Japan and customers are blessed with an unending amount of knowledge and information about trends. That wasn’t always the case.
There was a time where you actually had to travel to unearth a new brand or buy that coveted grail. There was, of course, the famed era of “sneaker tourism,” where sneaker aficionados descended, first on Baltimore and later on Japan, to scoop up rare, regional exclusives. Even so, the roots of modern fashion globalization and the notion of fashion tourism were spawned, not by sneakers, but by football. Today, brands like Stone Island boast an impressive reputation, but decades ago, they were relatively unknown outside their home countries. That all changed thanks to European football (or, as we say in the States, soccer).
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To understand how football helped shape fashion, you have to first come to grips with the fiery fandom of European ultras and the casual subculture that permeated Britain from the ’70s onwards. If you’ve been to a match in Europe, whether in the U.K. or Italy, you know that football is what brings people together—a local man who I struck up a conversation with at a game in Milan once joked that the Duomo was nice, but the San Siro was the “real cathedral”—and the fans are incredibly passionate about their teams. A Swiss casual shared a similar anecdote with Vice, recalling that his grandfather would tell him that “[he] should be impeccable for football and for church at all times,” equating football with religion and the stadium with the physical church.
The most passionate fans organize themselves into groups of ultras at games, sitting, or often standing, together and chanting for the majority of the match’s ninety minutes. These hardcore fans travel across their respective countries—and throughout the continent for those privy to European competition—to follow their team. “Away Days”, as ultras call them, are an integral part of football fandom. In the U.K., these groups of ultras gave way to the emergence of firms —drawing their name from the British slang word for criminal organizations— which sought direct conflict, both verbal and physical, with rival groups of fans.
In the ’60s and early-’70s, the firms were deeply tied to the skinhead movement, and their leather jackets and Dr. Martens-heavy wardrobes made them an easy target for police seeking to curb violence on the terraces. The need to not draw attention, along with away days in Italy, Germany and France for continental competition, gave rise to the Casuals. There’s been a perpetual debate about which firm birthed the casual movement, but most agree that it was either Manchester United’s Perry Boys or Liverpool’s Scousers. Livepool’s fans, though, are probably the ones who deserve most of the credit. The Scousers followed Liverpool for continental matches in the mid-to-late ’70s and came across a host of foreign brands worn by fans on the continent. It became a badge of honor for them to bring these then-unheard of brands back to the U.K. and they spent the days before matches wandering the streets of Milan, Paris and whichever other European cities they found themselves in, to unearth brands like C.P. Company, Sergio Tacchini, Stone Island, Fila, Diadora, Ellesse, Lacoste and L’Alpina. Occasionally this quest for ‘continental fashion’ bordered on madness; Peter Hooton recalled Liverpool fans scouring Paris for The Adidas Center, which reportedly sold trainers unavailable anywhere else… they never found it.
It was a myth. I don't think it ever existed, said Hooton to The Herald
but by the Monday morning, all the shops in Paris had either shut or they had bouncers on the door.
At the time, European competitions were smaller and British teams were allocated two spots, one for each cup; by bringing these aforementioned brands back home and wearing them, fans were advertising that they supported a successful team. The Scousers and Perry Boys began to identify themselves through the way they dressed and the brands they wore. At a time when skinheads were being profiled and prevented from entering football grounds, the casuals, as they would later become known, flew under the police’s radar thanks to their tracksuits, polos, and low-profile adidas trainers.
Hooton, who would later go on to front indie band The Farm, edited The End (a Liverpudlian football fanzine in the 1980s) recalled a “lad [coming] into a pub in Liverpool [in] 1978 or 1979, and he had a pair of strapover training shoes on. Everyone was amazed. They said, 'Where did you get them from?' and he just went, 'Switzerland.' And that was it.” Fashion not only fostered a sense of togetherness among firm members, but it delineated different groups and became the driving force behind one’s social identity; those with new, hard-to-come-by brands from Europe not only supported the best teams, but also had the money to spend on new threads, or the strength in numbers to loot stores. Robert Elms, a Queen’s Park Rangers fan and fashion journalist explained the sociological aspect in his book The Way We Wore, when recounting an Away Day at Coventry City. “Some of Coventry City’s top boys were sporting Fila, which had been the business, but had gone out of fashion in London at least a month before,” recalled Elms. “Instead of launching ourselves at them, we were lambasting them for sartorial tardiness.”
It was that desire to not be tardy that allowed brands to spread throughout Britain—fans of rival teams took notice of what Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton supporters were bringing back and did their best to find pieces from the brands. Travelling fans often became the unofficial importers for foreign brands, looting stores for dozens of pieces and bringing their haul back across the English Channel to sell to those who hadn’t made the trip. Brands like Diadora, Sergio Tacchini, Lacoste and Ellesse were known as tennis brands in their home nations, but became intertwined with the terraces of British football over the years, to the point where you’d have been forgiven for thinking of them as soccer brands by the time the aughts rolled around. Even British-bred Fred Perry, a brand founded and named after an iconic tennis player, was appropriated by the terraces, with London-based West Ham diehards inundating Lilywhite’s with requests for Hammers-colored tipping on the brand’s polos — today, the duotone piping has become a hallmark of the brand.
As the casual trend grew stronger throughout the ’80s, new brands were added to the fray: outerwear brands like C.P. Company and Stone Island became mainstays on the terraces, in part because of their distinct look—C.P. Company’s goggles and Stone Island’s compass badge—but also out of necessity, with a good chunk of the English season taking place over the winter. The two Massimo Osti-run companies were discovered during away days in Italy, with Aberdeen and Liverpool fans drawing inspiration from the Paninaro look popularized by Milanese youth who meshed vintage Americana with flashy Italian loungewear and spent their evenings hanging out at panini shops. The C.P. goggles and Stoney badges were instantly recognizable back in Britain and inspired awe. Vice journalist Clive Martin recalls “going to Chelsea matches more and more, [and starting to notice] it on a lot of the guys, and you get a little bit older and start going to pubs, you notice that it's a brand with certain connotations…It almost looks like everyone that wears it works for the same company or something like that. It's a signifier.” Quickly, too, the badges and goggles became signifiers for the police, who began targeting Stone Island-wearing fans.
The ’80s wore on, like with any other trend, the casuals began integrating not only new brands, but also a new style of dress, albeit one with deep roots in the British working class’ psyche. “The casuals follow a tradition that's always been there in British working-class fashion,” explained Anthony Teasdale, editor of Umbrella magazine, to Bleacher Report, “which is wearing clothes that take you above your allotted station in life. It [says] ‘I'm better than where I'm from, I'm wearing what they wear.’” That, coupled with a desire to continue to bring foreign brands back home after Away Days saw the likes of Armani, Ralph Lauren, Paul & Shark and Prada join British designers Burberry and Aquascutum as the dominant labels on the terraces. The sartorial shift wasn’t coordinated, per se, recalled one former casual who “showed up one week in Tacchini, feeling proud of [the] label and seeing three top boys come round the corner in Burberry jackets, wearing deerstalker hats and carrying walking sticks, and [realised] Tacchini was over. Instantly.”
Despite the expensive threads, though, the casuals still clung to their tribalistic and territorial violence—there was something ironic about men in thousand dollar outfits throwing haymakers at one another and parading through the streets of foreign cities with makeshift weapons. Eventually “the companies whose labels they sported, such as Stone Island, just wished they would go away,” argued Stuart Cosgrove, a British television executive and football fan; even Burberry, a British label, couldn’t be carried at Selfridges in the late-’90s because of the stigma associated with the brand.
The fact that the casuals had incorporated fashion with their unquestionable machismo is what allowed for the brands they brought back to penetrate the mainstream and be adopted by others. “Saturday afternoons on the terraces were like catwalks for the working classes,” recalled noted Blackburn casual, and current adidas Spezial head Gary Aspden; it helped normalize male interest in fashion. By the ’90s, the casual movement had ambassadors in popular culture, with the likes of Liam Gallagher having been raised on the terraces ultimately wearing the casual uniform on stage when they performed. The ’00s also gave rise to a romanticization of the casuals’ hooliganism that further propagated the brands they proudly wore. Films like Green Street Hooligans, The Football Factory, and The Firm shed light on the culture, while “reformed” hooligans released a series of revisionist memoirs that chronicled both the violence and fashion of the terraces in a way that drew curiosity and adulation. Phil Thornton’s Casuals: Football, Fighting & Fashion and Robert Elms’ aforementioned The Way We Wore serve as two of the most notable works.
The terrace’s favourite brands—Stone Island, Burberry, Sergio Tacchini and several others—came to symbolize masculinity, but also upwards class movement and success throughout the U.K. Soon, those brands became mainstays throughout the country’s inner-city neighborhoods and social estates: the rarity, price and garishness of pieces sourced from abroad became a source of one-upmanship for everybody, not just casuals. Gradually the brands became stocked in more stores across the U.K., catering to the demands of the population, a stark reversal from 20 years prior, when only travelling fans could access the threads.
The emergence of brands in Britain also boosted their popularity in other countries, furthering the spread of fashion throughout the European continent as visiting fans from Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Russia took note of the casuals’ style and emulated it back home. “At first, they laughed at me,” recalled Swiss casual Lebemann about returning home from England decked out in designer garb. “The mob was unfamiliar with this kind of well-groomed appearance at that time.” Brands rode the notoriety of their wearers to spread across Europe, from Manchester to Moscow, to the point where, today, their logos carry deep social connotations that know no borders among football fans.
Today the casual movement is at its zenith, with Stone Island enjoying a period of dominance aided by the emergence of grime (and the fashions associated with it) outside of the U.K. and mainstream stars like Drake serving as unofficial ambassadors. Track suits are no longer relegated to the wardrobes of hooligans, with designer labels like Gucci offering up takes on the matching sets that dominated the terraces of the ’70s and ’80s. The designer treatment also applies to Gosha Rubchinskiy, who used his platform at Pitti Uomo to pay homage to the Italian sportswear icons (and casual favorites) like Sergio Tacchini, Kappa and Fila. His ongoing work with Burberry and adidas has also helped revisit, expand upon and update several styles that once felt isolated to the stadiums and terraces on Saturdays afternoons. Adidas, for its part, has capitalized on the the trend to grow the popularity of its Spezial program, City Series and low-profile silhouettes like the Gazelle. All of this is unfolding before our eyes in real-time thanks to the internet and platforms like Instagram.
For those casuals who lived through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, there must be a twinge of derision: it is all so easy today and, seemingly, meaningless. A Stoney badge is no longer a badge of honour indicating you’ve followed your team on its European escapades and are willing to throw down with rival fans, just like an Ellesse track suit can easily be picked up at Gatwick Airport, rather than on an Away Day in Rome and Lacoste stores are found in cities around the world—not just Paris. But, the casuals can take solace in this: They were unexpected, coincidental pioneers in the uniquely contemporary globalization of fashion, unafraid to sport a brand that had yet to pop off in their home country. They were risk takers and influencers, and can lay claim to inspiring the arm of British menswear that’s the diametric opposite of the nation’s signature Savile Row tailoring.