The fashion industry has been slow off the mark when it comes to platforming women’s football.
But in the midst of this year’s Women’s World Cup (and a well overdue broad explosion of interest and awareness in the women’s game) we’re finally starting to see the fashion industry wake up to the power of the sport. We’re talking high-profile collaborations and product drops, the game’s biggest ballers taking over global billboards, and reserved seating on fashion week front rows. Women’s football and fashion have finally collided in a way that’s existed in the men’s game for generations, and it’s about time.
Football’s association with fashion continues to find new meaning as we are in the dawn of a cultural shift within the women’s game. Despite the term once averting our attention towards new iterations of the noughties-style football jerseys like those found on Balenciaga’s catwalk in their AW20 season or the 10-piece football-infused capsule collection by Aries X Umbro in 2021, today we find the essence of women’s football repeatedly woven throughout the fashion industry, and not just an afterthought.
Last year, emerging UK designer and fashion lecturer, Hattie Crowther, relaunched her football-themed corset collection in response to FIFA’s decision to allow Qatar – a country where homosexuality is illegal – to host the men’s World Cup. Hattie’s work was a protest against inequality and a celebration of identity, and we’re now seeing more and more storytelling-led style enter the women’s game – although not all are as politically charged.
For this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, we’ve seen kit designs champion heritage and culture. And yet this isn’t a ‘new’ phenomenon within the jersey culture space – just last year Nigo, the founder of Japanese streetwear label BAPE and creative director of KENZO, designed Japan’s away kit for the men’s FIFA World Cup – it’s the first time designers responsible for high-end, runway fashion (real ‘fashionistas’ if you will) have been at the centre of international women’s kit design.
Jamaica’s kit from adidas was designed in collaboration with British-Jamaican designer Grace Wales Bonner, whose textile patterns were inspired by those found on traditional Fair Isle knitwear, combining the traditional Scottish style with twilight colours of the Caribbean. The South Londoner is a lifelong Arsenal fan, and so football has played a crucial role in the designer’s work over the years. For example, her first collaborative release with the Three Stripes in 2020 saw Wales Bonner release a capsule inspired by outfits donned by Rastafari icon Bob Marley during the 1970s, with the capsule bringing a new lease of life to the adidas Samba – a shoe originally designed in the 1940s for footballers to train on icy, hard grounds. Since then, Wales Bonner has become somewhat of a cult hero amongst football fans and especially followers of the TikTok fashion trend, ‘blokecore’ or ‘blokette’.
Jamaica’s kit at this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup represents a pivotal moment in women’s football. After decades of oversized jerseys specifically designed for the men’s game, this generation has bespoke tailoring with seams sewn in areas more suitable for female anatomy and silhouettes more in line with on-pitch movement, and their kits have become staples for the everyday football fan. But more than that, these kits now ‘look the part’ after so many years of them looking like hand-me-downs. These strips perhaps represent the perception that women’s football is a competitive, bona fide product. The fastest growing sport on the planet is finally being viewed as the ‘real deal’ and fashion has a contributory role to play in that.
The 2023 federation kits haven’t sacrificed style over substance. England’s shorts are blue instead of white, a response to player concerns about menstruating while playing. The shorts have also benefited from an innovative “ultra thin short liner”, designed by Nike, which is intended to absorb any leaking blood. And as well as the kits themselves, there has been a notable change in language used across the fashion industry. Sarina Wiegman, England Women’s Head Coach, was listed among ‘The FT’s 25 Most Influential Women of 2022’, and other publications are starting to catch on. In realising the influence of women in football, we have seen players including Alessia Russo and Ella Toone on the cover of Elle UK, former captain Leah Williamson on the cover of GQ, and Chloe Kelly on GLAMOUR’s July cover. These individuals have become a sign of the times – they’re now acting as cultural connectors, just as players have done in the men’s games since its popularisation in the 20th century.
Alongside fashion magazines, brands have also shifted to place players at the forefront of their campaigns. Alex Morgan, Chloe Kelly, Kenza Dali, Mana Iwabuchi and Mary Fowler star in Calvin Klein’s latest campaign, ‘Calvins or Nothing’, shot by New York-based photographer and creative director, Brianna Capozzi. As mentioned by the brand themselves, by working with these footballers, “each shot is a celebration of athleticism, strength and vulnerability”, proving that it’s what these players represent and stand for that really holds the backbone of their success in the fashion sphere. Since the Women’s Euros last year, the UK specifically has seen an exponential growth in fans wanting to engage in the women’s game and these campaigns create an entry point for new conversations – ones centred more around wider societal topics compared to on-pitch performance.
Despite kits having seen a revamp for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, off-pitch styling has long been an underserved area of football culture in the women’s game. While some of the biggest clubs in European football have fashion-forward partnerships – look no further than AC Milan x Off-White – the women’s game specifically hasn’t received the same level of creativity, on an individual targeted level until very recently.
Last month’s Martine Rose collaboration with Nike is a sign of growth. By dismantling the boundaries of men’s and women’s football styling with gender-free tailored suiting, Rose has both advanced sport style and expanded the culture of sport – especially for the next generation. Rose successfully elevates the ‘look’ of elite women’s football and closes the gender gap with its considered and crafted tailoring – something we’ve also seen attempted this World Cup from fashion house Prada, who announced their official partnership with China Women’s National Team.
Although these changes are proving to have a real effect on the quality of product and design on offer in the women’s game, it’s clear women’s footballers are also navigating the world of fashion off the pitch, in their own time. England player – and all-round poster girl for English women’s football – Leah Williamson, was flown out to Puglia last year to sit front row at Gucci’s ‘Cosmonogie’ fashion show. Two-time World Cup winner Megan Rapinoe became the face of luxury Spanish house Loewe back in 2020 and has since gone on to make waves with her individual sense of style. Teammate and partners Christen Press and Tobin Heath launched their purposeful lifestyle and clothing label, RE-INC two years ago. These players and their presence matters, and their visibility creates the space for future change to happen.
The women’s game is growing on-pitch, but don’t sleep on the off-pitch cultural revolution taking place at the same time.