On 9th June 2019, the England Women’s football team took to the pitch at the Stade de Nice for their first match of the Women’s World Cup. They wore white, with red and blue striped cuffs, andsported the Three Lions (or maybe the Three Lionesses) on their shirt. This was the first time in the 140-year history of women’s football in England that a national team wore a kit that had beenspecifically designed for them.
Even on a practical level, the new England Women’s strip is of huge significance. Up until now, female players have worn kits designed for the masculine body. Often baggy and ill-fitting, the strip made the players less aerodynamic and caused discomfort while playing. The new kit is designed for and fitted to the female shape. For the first time, sportswear technology has been channelled into the development of a specifically female, professional-standard football kit, in order to support and enhance the performance of these top-level players.
Beyond this important practical progression, the new strip allows the England Women’s team to construct a unique visual identity, distinct from that of the men’s team. Academic discourse has, inrecent years, focussed on the interrelation of sport and gender. Jayne Caudwell and Jennifer Hargreaves, among others, have highlighted how, since the Victorian period, sport has become central to both the symbolic construction of masculinity and the lived experience of many men. As such, women have historically been excluded from sport on organisational, symbolic and cultural levels. These deeply engrained attitudes towards sport have often resulted in the derision ofwomen’s sport, clearly highlighted in the criticism female footballers have received via social mediain recent years. The implication of such criticism seems to be that women’s football is merely an inferior version of the men’s game, which is held as the pinnacle of what football as a sport can be.Despite the many and varied successes of England Women in the last 30 years, their kits – identical to the male strip – arguably visibly reinforced this perception of female football as merely anextension of the men’s sport, their achievements and identity drowned in the din surrounding men’sfootball.
The new strip, by contrast, creates an aesthetic associated exclusively with the England Women’sfootball team. Worn by players, it links this aesthetic to their performance and the pride and support it generates. Worn by fans, it expresses an allegiance to specifically the England Women’s team. Furthermore, it allows for a differentiation between the men’s and women’s games.
While perhaps, in an ideal world, there would be no distinction between the two, in reality the sports have developed in different ways. Men’s football is highly professionalized and skilful, but has also seen large-scale organisational corruption, while enormous salaries and invasive media attention is arguably damaging to the well-being of players. Women’s football aims to take a more holistic approach. At a talk I recently attended at the British Library, a representative of the F.A. suggested that there are structures in place to support female players, providing financial advice, career support and mental health provision, issues that she believes were historically overlooked in themen’s sport. Fans present at the same talk suggested that the sport itself had its own distinctive andpositive attributes, describing it as ‘football like it used to be’. Other fans praised female players for the efforts they make to interact with fans and the safe, friendly atmosphere of the crowds. The visually distinctive new England strip allows both players and fans to celebrate these unique aspectsof women’s football.
That is not to pit men and women’s football against one another. Personally, I would love in the future to see them learn from one another in order to create two equally skilful, equally holistic sporting structures. Because, for those of us who love sport, two sets of high-quality football to watch can only be better than one.
@lionesses Instagram account
Hargreaves, Jennifer, Heroines of Sport: The Politics of Difference and Identity (London: Routledge, 2000).
Hargreaves, Jennifer, Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’sSports (London: Routledge, 1994).
Caudwell, Jayne, ‘Gender, Feminism and Football Studies’, Soccer and Society 12, no. 3 (2011), pp. 330-344. Accessed online via British Library.
Caudwell, Jayne, ‘Reviewing UK Football Cultures: Continuing with Gender Analyses’, Soccer and Society 12, no. 3 (2011), pp. 323-329. Accessed online via British Library.