What do we see when we look at sports kits? We see stretchy, high-tech garments created to help people run, jump and engage in activities which generally transcend the abilities of an ordinary human body. Sometimes we don’t see the “uniform” at all, transfixed by the thrill of achievement and competition on our screens. When it comes to team sports, all we see are the primary colours that separate us from them, winners from losers. But for something with an ultimately practical purpose, sports kits at world championships and Olympic games have always been a significant part of the political spectacle. With World Cup 2018 approaching, football kits are once again at the centre of a heated discussion around sports, fashion and politics — in Russia and beyond.

There is hardly any group with a recognisable dress code — from club kids to road workers — which hasn’t been mined for inspiration by contemporary fashion. In the last couple of years, football garments have become the industry’s unlikely obsession. Football jerseys are now a permanent fixture of fashion week streetstyle, worn by editors, photographers and influencers for their bold and recognisable aesthetics, bright colours and relaxed vibe. Borrowing from the realm of sports is nothing new: it has happened before with basketball jerseys and Jordan sneakers, baseball caps and skateboarders’ Vans. But when the process of commodification moves from the street to the runway, it becomes harder to ignore.

In the last couple of seasons, football-inspired garments produced by fashion brands have ranged from jerseys to scarves to sneakers, and appeared in collections by Versace, House of Holland, Vetements, Off-White, Koché and Y/Project. There are also amusing examples like Les Vêtements de Football, which merge fashion and football branding, bootleg-style. When talking about football, it’s hard to ignore complex issues of class and masculinity — and fashion’s obsession with the game naturally evokes a lot of questions.

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    Tops based on classic 90s football shirts from Vêtements du Football

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    Football-style scarves from Anton Belinsky. Image: Anton Belinsky/Facebook

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    Football-style scarves from Volchok. Image: Volchok/@shying.blue/Facebook

“Most editors wouldn’t be seen dead eating a Pukka pie outside the turnstiles, and it’s hard to imagine a tower of supermodels cracking open the tinnies on a six-hour Megabus up the M1 for an away game. But that doesn’t mean the industry is immune to the charms of a garish, synthetic, slogan-emblazoned scarf, slung over a cashmere Prada coat or paired with a mini-kilt, beret, knee-high argyle socks and some platform loafers,” writes British Vogue’s fashion features editor and Arsenal fan Ellie Pithers in a piece titled “Leave My Football Scarf Alone!” for the Financial Times. “A sweatshirt with “Gucci” proudly emblazoned on the front isn’t dissimilar to a soccer club’s crest, as we increasingly communicate our ideals through the brands we wear,” suggests fashion journalist Calum Gordon in Garage Magazine.

To the fashion world, football is a subculture based on an unknown symbolic system, an untamed exotic other. The same thing could be easily said of Russia

Tribalism and eye-catching design are certainly factors to account for in fashion’s football obsession, but there is also the appeal of the rougher, almost exotic world of football culture. It goes hand in hand with the continuous fetishisation of working class looks. To the fashion world, football is a subculture based on an unknown symbolic system, an untamed exotic other. This is even more relevant in the light of this summer’s World Cup, as the same thing could be easily said of Russia.

Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, almost single-handedly responsible for the rise of the post-Soviet aesthetic in fashion since 2015, has worked with the football in his last three ready-to-wear collections (which also turned out to be his brand’s last before switching to a different distribution mode). Rubchinskiy’s shows in Kaliningrad, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg were parts of an ambition collaboration with Adidas. There were Adidas tracksuits in emerald green and neon pink, and football-style jerseys spelling out “ФУТБОЛ” and “АДИДАС” (“football” and “Adidas”) in Cyrillic, sported on the runway by boys with a physique similar to that a small town Russian football fan — but stylised for the Western gaze. 

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    From Gosha Rubchinskiy’s FW 17 lookbook

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    Gosha Rubchinskiy’s SS 18 collection

Moving on from the catwalk to the football arena, Gosha Rubchinskiy’s appeal in Russia remains limited to fashion-conscious youth; the same cannot be said of Adidas. The history of Russia’s obsession with the three stripes dates back to the 1980 Olympics, when the label provided kits for the USSR team. Adidas was one of the first global brands to become available behind the Iron Curtain, associated with the consumerist promises of the West. From Soviet men who proudly wore Adidas trainers to the theatre to semi-criminal suburban dwellers clad in black Adidas tracksuits, the label plays a crucial part in the image of Russian masculinity. This history, combined with that of football violence and racism in Russia, produces an alienating image of Russian football fans — but it is the kind of image that, as crazy as it might seem, is all too attractive to the world of contemporary fashion.

For the 2018 World Cup, Adidas has tapped into Soviet history: the Russia home kit directly derives from the classic 1988 USSR equivalent. The shirt is bright red with three white stripes on the shoulders, a white v-collar and, most noticeably, a white brand from the outside chest around the upper sleeve to the outside of the upper back. There is a two-headed eagle on the left side of the chest and Adidas logo on the right, both somehow tokens of Russianness. The kit is completed with white shorts and tricolour socks spelling out “Russia” over red.

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    Spartak Moscow midfielder Denis Glushakov models Adidas’s Russia home kit for the 2018 World Cup

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    Adidas produced kits for the Soviet Union football team in the 1980s

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    The USSR female handball team at the 22nd Summer Olympic Games. Image: RIAN under a CC licence

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    The neutral grey kit of the Olympic Athletes from Russia at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang

A more subtle look, the 2018 away shirt is white with a pattern of small grey squares, has a blue crew-neck, blue sleeve cuffs and three blue stripes on the shoulders. This one doesn’t scream “Russia” as much as the other one. The colour, perhaps, is key: the bright shade of red is associated with Soviet sporting achievements, a crucial element of the Cold War confrontation. In the Russian mindset today, the performance of their compatriots at global sports events is still very much connected to notions of pride, prestige and lost grandeur — the spiritual Soviet heritage which is very hard to let go of.

Perhaps it makes sense to look back at a another widely-discussed Russian sports kit: the one worn at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Due to doping allegations, Russian athletes competed wearing a neutral grey uniform which bore no flags nor crest of the Russian Federation. The bright red trackpants with two stripes were perhaps the most Russian element of the uniform — taking the place of the usual bold “Russia” across the chest, or the Bosco knockloma-style flowers of previous years. The lack of direct embellishment or national reference captures the tension between the value of individual sporting achievements and the greater cause of the home country’s grandeur. In the end, what do we see when we look at sports kits? We see hopes and aspirations, history, collective memory and current affairs — written all over a seemingly simple football shirt.

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