November 28, 2010

Sportswear: A Reflection

It cannot have escaped your notice that professional sportsmen of various stamps are once again showing up to games wearing suits and ties, and leaving afterwards similarly attired. The England football team went to the last World Cup in grey three-piece affairs, and that was the best thing about their performance. This is all to the good, but something odd has happened.

England's 'footballers' 
I was reflecting the other day on the origins of certain forms of sporting dress, namely that worn for cricket, tennis and snooker. Cricket whites, or creams, were originally cream slacks, white shirt, and wool sweater (sleeves optional), worn with sporting blazer and cap. The blazer and cap were removed prior to play, and made for the accidental uniform of the sport. This is still the case, as seen in the fine-looking captains of England and Australia, below. But when all this was taking shape, men of all stamps who went to look on also wore jackets and ties, and hats.

Ponting and Strauss, this week 
Eton v. Harrow, Lord's 1906 
The tennis story is remarkably similar, as anyone who has seen old footage of Fred Perry playing will testify. The uniform of the sport was simply the uniform of the gentleman, but slightly unbuttoned. And the crowd spectated in collar, tie, and headgear.

Fred Perry
Snooker, which is now sinking into a mire of sad populism, owes its uniform to gentlemen’s evening wear, the dinner jacket being removed to leave simply a waistcoat, dress-shirt with bowtie, and dress trousers and shoes. Things devolved into the lounge suit, but basically remained attached to gentlemen’s formal attire. And those who watched the game would have looked much the same. Until the 1980s, the front rows of the audience at the World Championship wore black tie.

Joe Davis 
More generally, the sporting audience of yesteryear went into the public gaze in appropriate clothing regardless of the sport. Baseball audiences of the 1950s, and even football (soccer) audiences up until the 1960s were suited, booted and crowned (and I’m talking of working-class audiences in the main). So why, when so many sportsmen are returning to the suit, do the watchers of sport now attend the fixtures of their favoured sports wearing the clothes in which modern athletes perform? What logic is there in wearing basketball gear to a basketball game? Or a football strip to a football match? So many sporting uniforms owe their existence to a distant relationship with gentlemanly (or at least respectable) sartorial standards, it now seems odd that sporting attire – with all its utilitarian considerations of comfort, the wicking away of sweat, and optimal performance for elite professionals – is informing what Mr. Public wears in the street, around the house, and to sit and watch.

Baseball crowd, Cleveland 1957 
The explanation is perhaps wrought through an understanding of who reflects what. The amateur gentleman sportsman of old reflected the values of his society when he took to the field of play. Professionalism was a dirty word, and had nothing to do with the spirit of play. Now, professionalism is everywhere, and its crass tendrils infect us all. Celebrity, wealth, branding: these have become aspirations, and as such society attempts to reflect what it sees on the field of play. This inversion has little to redeem it, so let us hope that sportsmen’s return to decent clothing off the pitch ultimately has some influence on those of us who watch them on it.


  1. Doctor, I believe gentlemen were themselves wont to take sports too seriously, but I believe sports were designed to an extent with that in mind. Churchill tells how his team won an unusual victory - polo, in India - and how he played to win with a dislocated shoulder. The consequences were to annoy him for decades afterward, but how could he have stopped just short of the title?

    Sports as they are played now, however, are irredeemably a democratic affair. To wish that sports might remain otherwise in a democracy is naivete, I think. Perhaps proper attire is recommendable, but do you think proper attire will likely improve people or that people will improve proper attire? Who is sovereign, after all?

  2. Excellent post and well analyzed. Atrocious attire for spectators at events is no different than the general slovenliness of many of the average men on the street these days.

  3. Kravien, my question is twofold: what is the meaning of sport? and, what do we wish of role models? My problem is with sport as professional when its historical meanings are thrown to the winds and its value becomes entirely hitched to money. The spirit of emulation is thereafter rooted in wealth and its outward display, and not in the spirit of the game, or the spirit of civility from when the game came. The markers of these things were, in part, the fabric of life (literally). What we see now is not encouraging.

    Thank you Mr. Sportsman. I think of all the people out there you are qualified to judge the veracity of the things I have here said.

  4. Hear, hear! I am sick to death of seeing every Tom, Dick and Harry out and about kitted in sporting jersey and baseball cap. I'm especially appalled to see women in the same.

    A couple of years ago I was in the unfortunate position of meeting up with a friend of my father's (American Macho) for dinner in Washington, DC. The choice of restaurants was rather limited as he refused to pack a jacket for his visit. I recall arriving at the bar of this establishment at the agreed upon time to discover that this 'millionaire' was dressed for dinner in golfing attire. I will never dine with this foolish man again.

  5. Many of those attending football matches wear their teams' strip regardless of weather,because it costs such a lot of money and so wear it at all some cases it is probably their Sunday Best!E.R.B.

  6. The amount of money professional sports players are paid is directly inverse to the quality of attire that is worn to sporting events.
    Salary is equated with marketability. Marketability is accomplished by selling anything emblazoned with that player's name, namely jerseys, resulting in... Yup, more jerseys in the crowd.
    Put a cap on player's salaries and people will start to view and treat sport as sport, an enjoyable, healthy pass-time, and not the zealously overanalyzed/overdramatized circus it has become.

  7. Hilton - breaking bread with people always should be taken seriously. I can think of no more damning an indictment than to refuse to do so.

    E.R.B.'s point is well made, and I must hearken back to my oft-made points relating to doing rather than watching. The replica kit has become an emblem of honour - a sort of vicarious activity - and has largely replaced the physical activity of emulating idols.

    To that end, I'm not sure that salary capping is the right answer, my dear Younger Brother, but rather education. If the shallowness of this kind of emulation is exposed, and the value of an active emulation encouraged and directly experienced, then sport may recover its true value within a short generation. If the players played for the love of it, but also got paid, then the marketing strategy of sport might have to change accordingly. This might foster a long and, perhaps somewhat separate debate to that of clothing. Still, I shall consider it, for I must write something more on the professional before too long.

    Thanks all for the comments.

  8. Question: Did the spectators of yesteryear dress up to watch sport, or was it that they came as they were, and the condition that has changed is the baseline for what passes as appropriate has fallen to new lows?

  9. Good question. I would hazard that, in the case of working-class audiences, they simply wore what they had for activities other than work, and this in general amounted to collar, jacket and tie. Wardrobes would not have been very full, but public expectations outside of work would have typically revolved around church, so that every man needed Sunday Best. My guess if that these clothes did perfectly well also for Saturday afternoons and any other occasions in public. These days we know not what 'best' means with reference to clothes, since nobody distinguishes between work, public and private appearances, and most people don't go to church (and the ones who do don't care about looking respectable in any case). Wardrobes are full-to-bursting with polyester dross. Less was more.

  10. Doctor, would you really like it if sportsmen considered first and foremost excellence in their sports? What likely would the consequences be? At times you suggest you are dead earnest about these questions, what sports are for, what purpose they serve, and how they should be ordered - but is it wise to run afoul of the popular opinion - or the unpopular opinion, for that matter?

    Surely, everyone who likes to be well thought of nowadays despises the people, variously construed. But who turned the people into something so contemptible? Even now, are the people as bad as the too clever by half? Anyway, who is willing to to revert to the world before the '60s?

    This is by way of answer to your very amusing questions about role models, by which I suspect you mean heroes or admirable people. You should ask yourself whether your experience suggests the educated or the uneducated are more prone to moral behavior and admiration of heroes - there being no doubt which dress smarter.

  11. Very good to read it whole. I really enjoyed to give time to your post. Keep it up.
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