Up The Hammers And Their Gladrags
Equality in the changing room? West Ham Football Club has been there, done that, got the shirt(s)...
By Eleanor Lee
Team colours are an integral part of both football fan and player culture. After women were banned from the game in 1921, they had to make do with hand-me-downs from brothers and dads, and, despite the ban being lifted in 1971, it’s not been until recently that we’ve finally seen the introduction of female-friendly kits. The male and female physique differs in many ways – whilst male players opt for a ‘second-skin’ fit, female players may want more comfort, so the idea that both can wear and perform well in the same fit should be one of the past.
One club embracing the needs of their male and female sides is West Ham United, and with both teams set for a gripping season, it’s an exciting time to be a West Ham player or fan.
The East London club recently launched its new 2021/22 kit, made available in a unisex cut as well as a female one. Boasting its famous claret and blue, the home kit, designed by Umbro, pays homage to the club’s history by using the shirt worn at the turn of the century, when club legend Paolo Di Canio was at his peak, as its inspiration. Umbro has built up the expertise needed to design kits suitable for both men and women. Jonathan McCourt, Head of Football Marketing at Umbro UK, explains that championing player input is key to doing so.
“We involve our [male and female] teams where possible to help with fitting sessions and take instant feedback on how the garments feel. Above everything else, the kits have to be fit for purpose for the players to perform. “Naturally, men and women come in all varying shapes, sizes, builds and physiques, so we aim to cater for everyone. We offer our ‘adult unisex’ jerseys, which can be worn by men and women, as well as a female cut of the jersey, which is tailored to a standard female fitting. In reality, we see female fans and players wear both the unisex and female jersey, depending on what they feel comfortable in. Across all of our teams, most are a mix of players wearing the adult and female kits.”
Umbro knows that the ultimate job of a football kit is to help players perform on the pitch. Lightweight materials and specific fabrics need to be considered to ensure that kits suit the modern needs of the game, and it’s such elements that are crucial in planning – a process that can start around 18-24 months prior to kit release. This lengthy timeline allows for a degree of collaboration between players, club and manufacturer. Umbro plans for a kit by looking at trends within the sport and fashion industry, identifying a unique ‘Umbro identity’ and workshopping to identify inspirations, club anniversaires and present stories ahead of the season. It’s this part of the process that helps draw connections for the team and supporters – creating that sweet spot between club culture and fan emotion.
After the design process comes the marketing strategy – an area where clubs can come under scrutiny for lack of female representation. However, Jonathan feels entire club inclusion is an important part of the kit release. “[Shooting male and female teams] is really important and something we always encourage our clubs to do, not just for female teams but also academy, junior, disability and fans. We make sure that our launch includes both male and female assets – it’s important for us to represent and resonate to all fans at our kit launches.”
As part of West Ham’s ongoing pledge of support to NHS trusts across East London and Essex, this year the club represented fans by inviting local West Ham-supporting NHS staff to take part in its launch. Those involved were given a first look at the new home shirt and a chance to star in the campaign as a thank-you for their crucial work throughout the pandemic.
For the fans, a football kit is less about performance and more about sentiment. A good kit has the power to break language barriers and speak to supporters worldwide – donning your team colours helps fans spot a friendly face across a sea of strangers. “We believe that kits are a great way to make connections between club, fans and players. Kits create lasting memories for fans, can be worn during moments of great achievements, bring back old memories and spark debate. We aim [to design] three kits that complement each other – they should work together from a performance point of view but should also talk to a fanbase,” says Jonathan.
And talking to the fanbase is exactly what West Ham’s new kit does. “The home kit is inspired by the past with a classic visual that continues to highlight the emotional connections between jersey and club. The kit design evokes memories of Di Canio’s unforgettable volley against Wimbledon in 2000 – a goal voted the best ever scored at the Boleyn Ground – as well as that famous European awayday in Metz when Sinclair, Lampard and Wanchope all found the back of the net to seal a UEFA Intertoto Cup success in 1999.”
It’s memories like those that lifelong West Ham fan and professional player Kate Longhurst remembers from her childhood. “I’ve probably owned every West Ham kit from when I was about four years old,” says Kate. “I still have the one that looks like this [new kit]. Di Canio and that era was a big inspiration for this kit and I think that’s when, as West Ham fans, we’ve seen the best football. [That era] is what we’re known for – the typical West Ham way that everyone strives to play like with a little bit of flair. When I saw the kit, I thought of those players and I think it represents where West Ham is now.”
Kate signed for the Hammers when they were promoted to the women’s top-flight in August 2018, after a successful stint at Liverpool, where she claimed two Women’s Super League (WSL) titles. To West Ham she brought experience from the top division coupled with genuine passion for the club, and now, at 32 years old, she’s one of the more experienced players in the Dagenham-based squad, and has seen the team go from strength to strength.
“[Playing for West Ham Women] was something I didn’t really think was possible because from a young age, they weren’t a professional team,” she explains.“It wasn’t feasible, so when the opportunity came and I was able to wear the badge and represent everything that I love about the club that I love, it was amazing.” “West Ham Women hasn’t just been a football club whilst it’s been professional – it’s been around for a long time [before]. There’ve been people that did voluntary hours and put in a lot of commitment to bring the club to where it is now. There’s been many people that’ll have put in the hard graft – that shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Kate began her career at Colchester United in 2007, during a time when facilities, kits and exposure lacked within the women’s game. “I used to have to roll my sleeves up like three times. It would be baggy near my knees and the shorts were massive,” the Essex-born midfielder tells me. Yet, in only 13 years, she recognises that the sportswear available to women has massively improved. “I prefer a tight, women’s fitting kit because it suits my body better. It’s important to feel comfortable. Once you feel 100% confident and comfortable in what you’re wearing it makes a massive difference because you don’t have to think about it while you’re playing. I’m sure a lot of thought and research goes into the [design] process and we definitely appreciate it – it’s nice to have the same kit as the men, whilst also feeling comfortable.”
It’s a kit that, in Kate’s words, should be done proud over the next season. With West Ham Men flying high in the Premier League, the women’s side want to replicate that success. West Ham Women’s ambition is evident through its number of new, key signings and with the WSL only growing in competitiveness, this new season – set to be broadcast on Sky Sports for the first time ever – is a crucial one for the Hammers.
“I’m excited for there to be more media attention. Some of the players have worked from the bottom and got us to this point – it’s a good reward to get this attention and coverage. For me, the biggest thing is having fans back. We get modest crowds but it makes a difference because when you’re playing without fans or your family, you don’t get the same feeling. As a team, we’re looking forward to welcoming our fans back but also going to away games. Hopefully, we can bring a bit more normality and enjoyment to people. I hope we can inspire young girls to come and see that this is actually a career choice they could make – if they’re seeing it on TV, why can’t young girls strive for it?”