Flashback: The Great Kit Caper of 1977

Detail from TV Times article from March 1977

There’s a certain irony about the way British football kit design exploded into life back in the mid-1970s. You’d think it would have had tongues wagging across the UK, yet as far as the media were concerned, it was barely worthy of note.

A recently discovered issue of the TV Times from March 1977 is a rare example of someone actually trying to acknowledge the way football kits were suddenly looking (and here I have to borrow a word my Mum would have used at the time) ‘snazzy.’ But why on Earth would a TV listings magazine - and not even the most popular one in Britain - be doing that?

The answer lies in TV Times’ move towards more football-themed content back in the day. For the issue dated March 26 to April 1 1977, writer Peter Genower got everyone in the mood for England’s imminent World Cup qualifier with Luxembourg by talking about “the great kit caper.” Put short, football kits were changing radically right before our very eyes, and who better than someone not associated with football writing to talk about it.

At the start of his piece, Genower gave us an insight into the minds of ordinary football fans unused to this new design trend:

“By the sound of the wolf whistles which have greeted West Ham when they have taken the field this season, you would think they had picked a team of Bunny Girls. The reason, however, is their new strip, which replaced the traditional claret shirts with blue sleeves, and white shorts at the beginning of the season. In their new shirts, which incorporate a giant multi-striped “V”, they could be renegade extras from The Tomorrow People or a line of chorus dancers.”

So already we have a few things to address here. First of all, Bunny Girls. Associated most commonly with Playboy magazine but generally the type that wore clothes and fake bunny ears, these were female models who added an element of glamour and, let’s not be coy, ‘sex appeal,’ to any public event. Upton Park, however, was not somewhere you’d expect to find your average Bunny Girl in 1977... or ever, actually.

Secondly, were West Ham players actually being wolf-whistled back then because their kit was so flamboyant? If so, it just goes to show how futuristic these new kits looked in ‘77, and indeed how homophobic some of the fans were. That last bit won’t come as a surprise to you, but it needed saying, nevertheless.

Centre page spread showing an article from the TV Times in March 1977

Thirdly, The Tomorrow People. It was a children’s science-fiction drama series made by ITV that ran through much of the 1970s. It was a little before my time, but having done some rigorous research on the internet, I can find no evidence of any character wearing anything remotely like the West Ham United home kit, 1976-1980. Odd.

Reading on, Genower suggests Norwich City’s opponents “are said to be considering wearing plarised sunglasses to reduce the glare of the home team’s busy yellow-and-green kit.” Ooh, yeah... the way Admiral outrageously made the yellow of Norwich’s home shirts ever-so-slightly paler was unbelievable...

It’s at this point that Peter Genower explained how football kits, up until the 1976-77 season, had generally looked the same, year after year. Now, however, there was chaos, especially regarding away kits. Manchester United had three black stripes down one side of their white shirts, Sheffield United were playing “in yellow shirts with fancy black trimmings,” and don’t even mention Stoke City. They had two away kits, “each with diagonal stripes across the shirt, either black-and-red on a white background, or black-and-blue on yellow.” You’ll be telling us next that Germany will one day wear a pink and purple away kit...

Having gotten the sense of shock and outrage out of his system, Genower explained that we were entering a new era where hard-up clubs were looking to make money from the designs of Admiral, among others.

“Admiral employ no professional designers. Their executives work out possible new strips, and when they are approved they pay the clubs a copyright fee, which could run into thousands of pounds according to the status of the club. This means that only Admiral can make the official team strip, and for every item of kit sold to the public the club receives a cut of the wholesale price.”

And thus a revolution in kit design was underway. It was noted that other companies like Umbro and Bukta weren’t copyrighting their designs like Admiral, but were nonetheless bringing out modern designs of their own that made full use of logo taping to reinforce their brand identity.

Hell, even “French and German sports giants” Adidas were getting in on the act. They’d already hooked up with Queens Park Rangers and were about to add more names to the list. “Their newest idea” said Genower, “is a fluorescent football shirt especially effective under floodlights, when it seems to shimmer like silk.” One feels that the use of the word ‘flourescent’ was misplaced here, although new-style ‘silky’ fabric was definitely something Adidas made their own towards the end of the 1970s.

As if all of this wasn’t enough for British football fans to digest 47 years ago, another big change was afoot - shirt sponsorship. Genower explained:

“Sooner or later, it is expected that the FA will have to give in because sponsorship could be an economic saviour for the majority of clubs. Teams in the West German Bundesliga - often supported by more than one sponsor - have earned about £1 million a season for displaying company names on their shirts.”

Change seemed inevitable. “Could Coventry change again - into shimmering shirts splashed with the name of British Leyland?” said the future TV Times editor-in-chief. Almost, Peter, but if you thought Admiral’s tramlines design was unbelievable, just wait until you see what’s going to replace it in 1981...