Much has been made lately – at least this is how this it appears from the comment threads on footyheadlines.com – of FIFA’s supposed “rule change” regarding monochrome kits ahead of this year’s World Cup. To wit: Germany, Spain, Argentina and Colombia – all Adidas nations – have over the past number of months unveiled kits which depart from recent models of the national colour palette. None of these kits are exactly monochrome: Germany’s features a large red and black chevron, Argentina retain their albiceleste stripes, and so on. The point of consternation is Adidas’s decision to do away with contrasting shorts for each of these nations – Germany’s and Argentina’s black, Spain and Colombia’s blue – leaving the outfits of the former two teams looking, it must be said, curiously anaemic. England (and Nike) have followed suit in unveiling an all-white home affair, which has been badly received by a subsection of fans who presumably missed both Euro 2012 and the last World Cup, when England also wore all-white home affairs.
Digs at strawmen aside, the Spain, Argentina and Germany kits are aberrations. Colombia have been through multiple colour changes throughout their history but for the former three the new designs break with a tradition that stretches back unbroken at least to the beginning of the post-war period. Germany have worn black shorts since 1908, and Argentina have never worn anything but. Answers are understandably being sought then, even if the “rule change” turns out to be something of a canard. Credit must be given to columnists like The Mirror‘s Sheridan Bird who, while ‘lament[ing] the monochrome revolution that has gripped our apparel manufacturers’ and fingering FIFA as ringleaders of said revolution, have at least taken the care to dredge up the actual passage of legislation which has seemingly triggered Adidas’s aesthetic departures. The passage, as many readers of this piece will already be aware, is found in a Regulations document drafted on the occasion of the World Cup, and requests that teams provide one “predominately light” and one “predominately” dark kit for the competition so as to avoid colour clashes. What many readers might not know is that this passage was also present in 2010’s equivalent document, although that year no drastic decisions seemed to be made by any of the sportswear giants on its behalf.
The responsibility for the decision to have Argentina, Germany and Spain trot out in non-traditional colours then falls squarely on the shoulders of Adidas. This becomes particularly evident when you realise that Mexico’s home kit – all tricolor and lightning bolts – is also made by Adidas. FIFA are presumably not intending on punishing nations who promote as their first-choice strip a mixture of lights and darks so much as requesting that they cobble together a suitable “predominately light or dark” ensemble should the situation demand it, as when Brazil wore white shorts and socks in last year’s Confederations Cup final against Spain. The three truly elite nations in Adidas’s stable – numbers two, three and four on the bookies’ favourites list at time of writing, no less – have had their attire conscientiously homogenised ahead of Brazil 2014, and it seems this decision cannot be explained exclusively through the language of rules and regulations.
Developments in football kit design may be driven to a certain extent by technical considerations and a vernacular sense of what Dave Brailsford once famously referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains” – players no longer sweat it out in woollen jumpers and caps, after all – but neither is the game exempt from the fashion cycle. There are presumably good reasons why most kit manufacturers have moved over to the tight shirt-capacious shorts look of recent years, but whatever these reasons are they are imprecise: there seems to be a sliding scale of opinion on just how tight shirts ought to be, with Puma’s recent African national team kits defining one end of the spectrum. Whether the shift from the aesthetic regime of the nineties, with its baggy shirts and short shorts, to that of the naughties, with its base layers and updated knickerbockers, had anywhere near as significant an impact on performances as, say the economic changes football underwent in this period is highly doubtful. So with both instrumental and legislative factors put to one side, what is there left to say about these kits?
Principally, that on the level of semiotics they are purist. To really buy into the idea of producing a “predominately light coloured” kit, in the manner that Adidas have done with their designs for Germany and Argentina, is to bracket the possibility that the players wearing them might get muddy, or even bloody (of course, players who bleed onto their shirts are required to change in any case). There is precedent for this in other areas of football design: the supposed demand for rounder and rounder match balls – this year’s Brazuca features only six heat-bonded panels, two fewer than South Africa’s infamous Jabulani – similarly voices an illusion that footballs are not designed fundamentally to be physically messed with. Were Adidas ever to engineer a single-panelled, perfectly-spherical ball, it would still be subject to all kinds of warping and distress on the basis that it is an object that is activated by being struck, forcefully and repeatedly. The outcry against the Jabulani’s unpredictability in the air also speaks to the ideological, as opposed to merely instrumental, basis of that ball’s geometric purity. Likewise, the radical new kit designs for Germany and Argentina, intended to be optimised against colour-clashes, speak more to a lofty, abstracted and utopic vision of football than to any direct and pressing need for visual clarification (there were suggestions that FIFA introduced the light-dark regulation to help viewers watching the World Cup in black & white, which rather begs the question how anybody managed before the invention of colour television).
There is another precedent we can draw on here, and it is simultaneously closer to home and much, much further away. In 1923 Varvara Stepanova, a Russian Constructivist artist, ideologue and wife of Aleksandr Rodchenko, designed a series of sports outfits which she published in the journal Lef. Throughout this period Stepanova, in common with many artists associated with the Constructivist movement, took steps towards involvement in industrial design, seeking to promote a mass aesthetic which would transform its participants into liberated embodiments of the new society while avoiding any intimations of bourgeois comfort. To this latter end, Stepanova harnessed a visual vocabulary which belonged to an earlier moment in the Russian avant-garde: as Christina Kiaer notes in her excellent book Imagine No Possessions, the sports outfits are ‘drawn using the flat planes of circles, triangles, and rectangles from the pictorial lexicon of Suprematism.’ That is to say, the outfits are not only adorned with forms borrowed from Kasimir Malevich’s canvases (and here the chevron on Germany’s shirt finds an unexpected cousin) but are actually constructed along the lines of those forms. Malevich’s Suprematist movement had sought to capture pure, non-objective forms in one of the best-known utopian gambits of the early twentieth century, and here Stepanova attempts to tie those forms down to the gritty mundanity of sportswear. This was, as might be expected, an awkward fit: as Kiaer observes, a photograph of Stepanova’s friend Evegeniia Zhemchuzhnaia modelling one of the outfits gives testimony to ‘the ruin of these androgynous, geometric lines when they enter into contact with a real body that gives off heat and has rounded limbs.’ Something to bear in mind when it rains in Rio.
Posted by Luke Healey