Fashion at the Cup (Can store racks be far behind?)

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJuly 5, 2014 

If you, like me, have walked down a city street sometime in the last two weeks, there's a good chance you passed someone wearing, say, a lurid yellow shirt trimmed in green, or a slightly twee white polo-neck edged in blue, or a blood-red tee with black stripes.

And then you, like me, may have scratched your head and thought, "Where are they getting their fashion cues from?"

The World Cup, of course - aka one of the largest sports fashion catwalks in the world. Because when it comes to the World Cup (or rather, what is worn in the World Cup), what happens on the field does not stay on the field; it filters out to sportswear consumers globally.

Accessories (haircuts and shoes) are expected to be weird and attention-grabbing, the better for each player to make an individual statement within the homogeneous team and, hence, grab that career-making underwear contract. But given the second life of soccer jerseys on myriad fans around the world, we may all be seeing the viral effects of, say, Mexico's Shazam symbol (supposed to imply that the players are actually superheroes?) or Iran's endangered Asiatic cheetah (supposed to imply that the players are superfast animal preservationists?).

Indeed, odds are that colors and prints will influence numerous other, non-soccer-related products made by dominant World Cup manufacturers, Adidas, Nike and Puma. What we see on ESPN now we may see in stores later.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that many of the challenges of the runway designer, especially the menswear designer (How do you create something new and resonant within strictly delineated boundaries?) are shared by the soccer-uniform designer. As are the pitfalls. If you think suits are limiting when it comes to professional options for self-expression, for example, just consider the competitive sports uniform, where the variables are … a T-shirt (in some special techno fabric that wicks away moisture, keeps you cool in heat, and so on) and shorts.

At the same time, there is a need to demonstrate, if not brand identity, then national identity. This leaves but a few details (How tight is the shirt? What does the collar look like?) to convey all visual points of difference, along with color and pattern.

Which is where things become tricky. Because given all of these constraints, the temptation is to exaggerate or be overly "creative" with what is available, and as fashion often demonstrates, therein lies a slippery slope to sartorial disaster.

Consider, for example, Croatia, whose giant red-and-white checkerboard home shirt (and away trim) may be eye-catching, but only in the "Hey, is that a Formula One flag?" kind of way. As for the digital revolution, it has had some discombobulating pixelated effects on the Portugal (horizontal stripes that blur into a giant block).

On the opposite extreme is Cameroon, which has fallen victim to heritage ikat overload (not to mention Brazil, Mexico and Croatia), and France, where the away jerseys, in faded stripe and Henley collar, and the navy-with-white-polo-collar home jerseys both telegraph a days-of-yesteryear nostalgia that seems at odds with a sport synonymous with future promise. Though, to be fair, collars are something of a major trend.

The United States, for example, went for a polo neck with three-button placket for its home jerseys, as did Greece (home and away) - though the net effect, especially when buttoned, was to make the player look like a small boy dressed by his parents, which is not necessarily the most desirable impression in a competitive situation. A better solution is the trompe l'oeil open-collar without buttons, as seen on Australia; it implies "professional" without being a cliche.

Ditto South Korea's truncated stand-up style that vaguely references a Mandarin neckline.

Still, the biggest statements, speaking literally, tend to be made in color and print, with varying degrees of success. The single-shade shirt-'n'-shorts combo, for example, while it does make a team easy to identify, is also disturbingly reminiscent of a child's romper suit - or, in the case of Ivory Coast's yellow-orange, a bag of tangerines run amok. Though the dress-like-the-flag approach of the U.S. away jersey, with its giant red, white and blue stripes, and the confusing not-a-Nike-swoosh of Costa Rica (the shirt is made by Lotto Sport Italia) are not necessarily better. The need to show up from afar and on television is certainly worth taking into consideration, but these designs are so heavy-handed, they miss the grace and pure physicality implicit in this "beautiful game."

Which is not to say the safe option, as seen on Algeria (light green or white with light green trim and small crescent-moon emblem), Honduras (blue or white with a big old "H" embroidered on the left that looks, depending on one's point of view, as if it could refer to Harvard or Hilfiger) and Switzerland (red and white or … white and red) is necessarily better. It's as banal as a navy blazer and khakis, though given that navy blazers and khakis are often the "casual" uniform of the soccer club, perhaps this should not surprise.

The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle: see Ghana's white home jersey with bright ikat neckline decoration (just the right amount of print); Japan's subtle tone-on-tone sunray inlay; Argentina's graphic home vertical and away horizontal stripes; and Russia's wash of blue on the shoulders of its white home jersey.

These designs single out their teams without distracting attention from the talent, and don't look exactly like another style albeit in different colors (a problem, for example, for Italy and Switzerland, both of whom have jerseys with contouring stripes down each side, as does Uruguay). As a result, they draw the eye in and make you want to look closer.

Isn't that the job of the best fashion, on the field as in life?

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