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The Arsenal Shirt - A Sartorial History

When I was asked to review The Arsenal Shirt, I was a little tentative. I am something of a retro shirt hound and a small time collector. Had I the disposable income, I don’t doubt I would be a revered collector like those profiled at the apex of this book. I thought it would be a book for fanatics of a niche subject and, being one of the very people it would surely be aimed at, I wondered if it would be possible to view it subjectively.

As it turns out, the book (more of an opus really, Santa won’t thank you for trying to cram this sizeable, glossy compendium down your chimney) has more than enough for the casual observer. It describes itself as a “coffee table book” and it’s structured as such. It’s not entirely linear. Stories about each individual kit since 1965 (and every cup final shirt) are broken up with chapters of historical interest, such as the introduction of numbering and hooped socks, the origins of the captain choosing the sleeve lengths and the introduction of the aerlex material.

The book lends itself nicely to a casual leaf through, or several casual leaf throughs, or a fastidious read through. Personally, I instinctively jumped forward to read about some of my favourite kits. Each kit’s story is illustrated with a match worn edition. The layout is very user friendly, with a single page offered to each shirt. Just enough detail to hold your interest, but the authors know not to over embellish. If there’s little to say about the shirt, they don’t say it. But there are lots of titbits of detail to tide the reader over.

arsenal shirt book

But the book comes into its own via its series of thematic articles. If you have an interest in Arsenal’s history and tradition, the book does a grand job of investigating and even deconstructing some of the popular mythology around the club. Last year I wrote a piece questioning the club’s connection with tradition and many Arsenal fans may be surprised to read throughout these pages that Frank McLintock, Bob Wilson and Tony Adams all at one time discarded some of the club’s most sacred sartorial traditions.

I was particularly taken by the story that Herbert Chapman wore yellow boots as a player. As ever with Chapman, it was showmanship with practicality at its vanguard. He felt they made him easier for his teammates to pick out. The authors get busy investigating the origins of one of Arsenal’s most famous traditions, the captain choosing the sleeve lengths, which has eluded some of the club’s most fastidious historians.

There is even an amusing anecdote from the 1980s that during an away match at the Dell, the players complained that sweat turned their infamous bottle green shirts very dark and that they struggled to identify one another as a result. Some 13 years later, an Alex Ferguson excuse along the same lines would become the stuff of legion. The kit seems like a rather minor business to concern oneself with, but there are moments where it feels like a very serious business. The famous gold kit from the 1950 F.A. Cup Final was “road tested” by manager Tom Whittaker for a league fixture a fortnight prior to the final for a “recognition test.”

The significance of shirt sleeves is debated with regards the 1971 F.A. Cup Final too. The temperature topped 100 degrees on the pitch at Wembley that day and Liverpool players wore short sleeves and Arsenal long. Given the Gunners’ late rally, it could be argued that tailoring had a say in one of our foremost achievements. There is a nice kind of ‘miscellaneous’ feature at the back too featuring forgotten shirts, shirts that never made it out of the warehouse and a feature on Ian Wright’s famous “179 Just Done It” vest.

As a (wannabe) collector, my favourite section probably revolved around rare kits. The 1994-96 third shirt, worn only twice. The blue Nike shirt worn as a one off design for a Champions League game against Lens at Wembley. The ‘Dubai’ sponsored shirt worn against Hamburg in 2006. The authors address shirts they couldn’t find from before 1965 and that in itself becomes an interesting yarn. If you’re interested in Arsenal shirts, this book will become something of a bible.

If you’re only partially interested, you can flick through it a bit like a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. It’s not a page turner to keep you going on your morning commute. Not unless you have a carriage to yourself given its size. It might take you several months or even years to get all the way through given it’s “pick it up and put it down” appeal. It’s not really stocking shaped, but a pretty nifty Christmas gift for the Gooner in your life. If nothing else, it would make an attractive paperweight. LD. 

 Tell us what you think! If you agree, or have a different view, please leave a comment in the comments section or why not write a response or your own article on YouWrite?

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