At a time when a waistcoat-wearing ex-centre half is the UK’s biggest style icon, football culture’s influence on fashion has never been more relevant. But we’re not here to talk about Southgate’s nice-guy look. The topic of this discussion is a group of people whose dress sense has been as influential as they were infamous in their hey-day. Namely, the casuals. With the heartache setting in and the sound of “It’s Coming Home” fading fast, we thought we’d distract ourselves by taking a look back at one of football and fashion’s most influential tribes.
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Fashion owes a lot to the casuals, AKA dressers – depending on which side of the North-South divide you sit. A subculture and streetwear movement that grew out of English football during the late ‘70s, the popularity of high-end sportswear can be traced back to these track-top wearing lads on the terraces. The casuals cultivated a look defined by exclusive European sportswear brands only available overseas. It was all about the brand. And football. Where other subcultures were accompanied by a music scene, the casuals' only soundtrack was the roar of the crowd and the commentator’s account of what was playing out on the pitch.
Whilst the origins of the movement are disputed, King Adz, a casual, streetwear don and author of This is Not Fashion: Streetwear Past, Present and Future, attributes its rise to teams in the North of England. He pinpoints its birth to 1977 when a group of Liverpool fans travelled to France for the European Cup and came back wearing expensive French and Italian sportswear (which was probably stolen). Known as ‘clobber’, the more expensive the clothes and the harder they were to source the better. Your get-up was a badge of honour and a means of tribal affiliation with your ‘firm’. It demonstrated the distance you were prepared to go for your team and was a symbol of their success. A bit like today’s hype around the latest sneaker drop, clothes were a form of cultural currency for the fans that could, to use a modern phrase, ‘cop’ them.
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And therein lies one of the casuals’ most enduring legacies. Trainers. Neal Heard, author of The Football Shirts Book and Trainers and once a casual himself, ascribes the shoe’s meteoric rise in popularity to the terraces. “Those of us who were there in the early ‘80s knew we were ahead of our time. The fashion seeds sewn by us then started trends that are now on every catwalk.” Criticising the lack of recognition the movement has had, he explains “It makes me wince when clueless people say that football is finally becoming fashionable. Most of the brands and garments worn by casuals were reserved for sports or only seen as practical and weren’t even considered viable as fashion. Until the casuals appropriated trainers they were just items for the court or track.” Paving the way for today’s obsession with trainers and brands, the casuals were the first real sneakerheads, favouring rare and limited European styles over ones you could get at home. Without them, the high-end trainer may not exist – it’s no coincidence that the first luxury sneaker on the market was released by Gucci in 1984 when the casuals were at their peak.
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Despite this, the movement’s associations with hooliganism have meant that it has often been overlooked. ‘The smarter and more expensive the clothes, the more chance you had of not being spotted as an away-day fan’ says Adz. Lads in smart jackets and sneakers didn’t arouse police suspicion but eventually the Old Bill and the media caught on and casuals, whether hooligans or not, became associated with violence.
This wasn’t representative of the culture at large. Adz, an original casual himself, explains ‘I never acknowledged, nor practised, the football hooligan element, but I did like the way you got to do up your top button and give it extra-large. This was the 1980s, which was a bad time to be growing up in suburbia, so what you wore played a vital part in keeping you from going mad.’ The movement was as much about out-styling the opposition as it was about trashing their ground. With more fans going to away games than ever before, the rivalry between teams increased – as did the need to out-dress each other. The irony of the term ‘casual’ can’t be underestimated – in many respects there was nothing casual about them. Style was a matter of pride.
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Later, with the advent of rave and the Madchester scene casual style was adopted and reimagined by different emerging subcultures. Thanks to Brit Pop and Noel Gallagher’s affection for track tops and cagouls, the casual dress code entered the mainstream and what had been an underground working men’s movement informed the aesthetic of the ‘90s media’s darlings. Today, the Stone Island jackets and C.P. Company sweats that were so vital to fans braving the cold on the terraces are part of our everyday wardrobes. Sportswear underpins huge swathes of the luxury fashion industry, with a pair of track pants and trainers seen on every runway from here to New York and it’s those lads in the stands we have to thank for it. As Heard puts it “Anyone who thinks fashion is started on the catwalk just hasn't been there or done it, and it was ever thus.”
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