LONDON — Football shirts are not just symbols of team allegiance: the colors, designs, and styles are being reappraised as icons of sartorial cool at an exhibition in London.

Football shirts as design classics
Football shirts at an exhibition entitled The Art of the Football Shirt include: (top L-R) Gremio 1991-1992, Juventus 1981, Flamengo 1985-87, Hull City 1994, St. Etienne 1976, (middle L-R) Liverpool 1976-1982, Napoli 1989-90, Coventry City 1978-1980, Monaco 1983-1984, Barcelona 1984-1989, (bottom L-R) Holland 1980, St Etienne 1980-1981, S.C. Bastia 1978-1979, Wales 1980-1983 and Sampdoria 1990-1991. — AFP

The Art of the Football Shirt takes visitors through 180 different football shirts, from instantly recognizable classics to strange strips that pushed the boundaries, and jerseys that crossed over into fashion, music, and politics.

It shows how plain shirts gradually gave way to a tidal wave of graphic design experiments, with art school graduates let loose to play with shapes, patterns and colors.

Curator Neal Heard, who owns 70 shirts in the collection, said kits were now jumping out beyond the sport once again.

“These things are fashion items now,” he told AFP.

“I call it the ‘basketball-ization’ of football — it’s becoming more about lifestyle and less about the tribal resonance of a team’s shirts.”

He compared modern football jerseys to New York Yankees caps — a symbol worn by many people without any allegiance to, or even knowledge of, the baseball side.

“Shirts and football are going more that way. The teams are seeing themselves as brands,” said Heard, citing Italian side Juventus’s newly introduced J-shaped logo.

He also said popular football computer games were spreading a love of the kits among youngsters.

“Kids know their teams and colors and see the players wearing them as lifestyle heroes,” said Heard, a 48-year-old sportswear consultant who penned The Football Shirts Book: The Connoisseur’s Guide.

The exhibition includes an iconic XI chosen for their legendary football status, but breaks down the collection into sections such as streetwear, music, politics and graphic design, rather than eras, countries or club and international shirts.

The iconic XI includes classics such as England’s red 1966 away shirt, the bright yellow 1970 Brazil jersey, AC Milan’s red-and-black stripes, Celtic’s green-and-white hoops and the black-and-white stripes of Juventus.

It also includes, from 1988, the Netherlands’ Marco van Basten/Ruud Gullit era patterned orange shirt, and the white West Germany top featuring a tricolor band of the national flag’s black, red, and yellow — two Adidas shirts that triggered the 1990s graphic design explosion.

Heard said the early 1990s period was dominated by art school graduates left free to experiment, including taking the patterns created by shining light through an ashtray onto a photocopier.

“The genie was out of the bottle. One of the iconic ones would be the Arsenal ‘bruised banana,’ That was a touchstone for that time. But all the big boys were doing it,” said the Newport County fan.

Dutch collector Jesse Rabbeljee, who provided the other 110 shirts, added: “Around 1988 to 1990 things started to evolve — and in the 1990s it got completely mad.

“I didn’t like them. But recently they have been growing on me.”

The 43-year-old said those designs were returning.

“Now were in a ‘retro-new’ style: using the old patterns and styles from the ’80s and ’90s and bringing it back with a new touch. It won’t take long to go back to crazy kits again,” he told AFP.

Rabbeljee, who works with children with behavioral problems, started his collection in 1999 with a yellow and green Nantes jersey like the one Bob Marley once wore, found in a thrift store in the United States.

One section of the exhibition looks at how football shirts have crossed over into the music scene, including the Nantes colors worn by Marley, the Manchester City shirts sported by Oasis and the sky-blue England third kit featured in the England/New Order 1990 World Cup song “World In Motion.”

Curious strips include Hull City’s tiger print shirts; Fiorentina’s 1992 change jersey, withdrawn after apparently inadvertent swastikas were found on it; and Stockport County’s Argentina-style strip, pulled when Britain went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982.

Spanish side Cultural Leonesa’s 2013 cocktail jacket and bow tie top is featured, along with a Breton-striped France change jersey by designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.

The free exhibition was part of the Jacket Required menswear trade show at the Old Truman Brewery. — AFP