By Jason Davis (@davisjsn)
Let’s be honest here: The 90s were a wasteland of bad decisions. For all the amazing pop culture movements that the decade brought us—West Coast rap, alternative rock, the early days of the internet, the Simpsons, Andy Dick—there was an equal amount of hideous fads being passed off as fashion. We listened to some good music and we laughed at Adam Sandler, but we did not always look fly doing it.
Pastels. Overalls, with one side undone. All of that flannel (thanks, Seattle). Several other fads of questionable taste, including the disastrous Pegged Jean Epidemic of 1993 and whatever the hell that slap bracelet thing was all about. Growing up in the 90s meant caring a lot about what you wore but being oblivious to just how terrible it all looked. It was an improvement on the 80s, but only in the way Fred Durst was an improvement on Vanilla Ice.
But mixed in with all of the Starter jackets, braided belts, and No Fear gear were a few trends worth remembering. The 1990s gave us the real rise of sneaker culture, built on the back of the brand explosion of the 80s. The 90s put skater style into the mainstream, made bandanas a thing, turned Timberlands into a movement, and made us look cool in our Oakleys. Screw hair curtains, though. Seriously.
And Umbro. The 1990s were the height of Umbro’s popularity in the United States, and in a country that still generally viewed soccer as a communist sport played by suburbanites and watched by immigrants, the insane reach of soccer brand—and a soccer brand that was almost exclusively about uniforms—it was astounding.
Specifically, it was the shorts. Those Umbro shorts, which somehow made the transition from the pastoral fields of youth soccer to everyday casual wear, as if shiny nylon was a good look that deserved a showcase in malls and school hallways. Those Umbro shorts became such a massive hit in the U.S. that—timed with the sale of the company to an American concern—the venerable British brand responded with a line of designs just for the American market. Soon, Umbros got 90s-fied.
Former pro soccer player and purveyor of the soccer-themed lifestyle brand Bumpy Pitch, Brian Dunseth, remembers the Umbro explosion from growing up Southern California’s Inland Empire. The IE was a soccer hotbed, then as now, and Dunseth watched as the style of the soccer field became the style of everywhere else.
“They were the most iconic shorts,” he said. “Everyone had to have them. If you had Umbro, I think you were a game changer.”
It’s a simple as that, really. So many kids were playing soccer in the late 80s and early 90s that the gear they wore to play also became the gear they wore when they weren’t playing. Once soccer players turned their Umbro shorts into daily wear, the rest of the culture latched on—not to mention that the things were comfortable. It was like wearing air, in the form of shorts. Brightly colored air, usually trimmed in white piping down the sides or shimmering with a subtle checkered pattern. Sometimes that air turned transparent with a little sweat, and the nylon material was prone to ripping, but that didn’t stop the movement.
Umbro’s move from the soccer field to the classrooms and locker-line hallways of America was paralleled by the brand’s push into commercials outlets. For years before the fad went big, Umbro (and any soccer gear for that matter) was only available through catalogs specifically aimed at the country’s exploding youth soccer culture. The catalog of choice, Eurosport, was page after page of uniforms, cleats, socks, shin pads, balls, and sundry game-improvement devices available by mail order from exotic companies like Diadora, Lotto, and Kappa, and naturally, Umbro.
Both Dunseth and fellow SoCal soccer guy Jared DuBois remember Eurosport vividly (full disclosure: the author hosts a semi-weekly podcast with DuBois) described the impact the catalogs of the era had on Umbro’s reach.
“If you could get your hands on a Eurosport catalog, it was like your gateway into another world,” recalled DuBois. “Inside that catalog was an Umbro section, and you’d think ‘Can I get this stuff? It takes weeks?’ and you’d still try to get it.”
Until the mid-80s, Umbro was strictly a uniform outfitter. The company didn’t get into the cleat game until 1986, and didn’t really make waves in the soccer footwear game until much later. Umbro’s cool factor was strictly a clothing thing, which actually helped it seep into popular culture more readily. adidas was already ubiquitous in soccer circles and didn’t “feel” European. When the trend started, Umbro benefited the cache of scarcity and also had an English vibe that gave it an extra cool factor during the early days of America’s introduction to the English soccer.
Most notably, Manchester United wore Umbro in the 90s. The launch of the Premier League in 1992, and United’s new wave of star players (Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt) put the brand in front of a generation of American kids just coming beginning to make their own fashion choices.
Separately, both Dunseth and DuBois identified Manchester United as a major part of Umbro’s popularity.
“It was [the checkered look] and it was because Manchester United wore Umbro back in the day. Man U and Celtic were the iconic ones that I remember,” said Dunseth.
“Growing up in the 90s, I was a big Manchester United fan. They were sponsored by Sharp and their kits were provided by Umbro. Those two logos together just looked so good on that kit,” DuBois explained. “I remember (goalkeeper) Peter Schmeichel’s Umbro shorts. Some of this goalkeeper uniforms were horrendous, but I remember thinking Umbro does some of the best stuff out there.”
Umbro’s penetration in America also benefited from the wave of foreign soccer coaches, like an army of Johnny Appleseeds with funny accents, who moved to the U.S. to teach little Yankee kids the game. Back then, no one believed an American coach could possibly know anything about the sport, so suburban parents jumped on the chance to hire coaches from countries where they called the game “football.”
“I think [Umbro’s popularity] was because there were so many European coaches that were influencing so many young American players,” Dunseth said. “It’s think it’s part of the unique dynamics in the States. All of us had some type of coach at one point or another that was Argentine, Brazilian, English, Dutch, Scottish, Italian whatever...Scottish. They were the guys all coming over. They were the guys that knew the game. They were the ones the parents were hiring to teach us the game. We were seeing these guys have such major influences on our lives, and all of them were coming from foreign countries where Umbro was such a big product. The trickle down effect for us was ‘This gear is fucking cool.’ On top of that, the guys that we respect, the guys that we look up to were rocking it so we better rock it.”
Little soccer players enraptured by Manchester United and aping their beloved foreign coaches pushed Umbro to the top of the soccer gear charts. But how did a pair of shorts most often sold to youth soccer teams out of a catalog turn into a cultural phenomenon? Remember those kids who never kicked a soccer ball in their lives but still showed up at school sporting a pair of Umbros and a Just Do It tee? What was up with that?
It started with Umbro shorts being just fashionable enough to let soccer kids rep the game away from the field.
“There was two fashion items that transcended soccer in the 90s,” DuBois said. “Umbro shorts and the blue and white adidas sandals. Those were the two things you could wear off the field to rep soccer.”
Once the soccer kids—boys and girls alike—made Umbro shorts a staple of their school wardrobes, there was no stopping the fad. Sporting goods stores picked up on the fad and stocked enough Umbros to outfit every kid in America multiple times over. The shorts migrated from the soccer section to central locations and went big time.
“I think it was one of those things that there we so many kids that starting rocking them, that people started recognizing at school that it was soccer, but it didn’t just have to be soccer,” suggested Dunseth. “It allowed kids to identify with a culture without having to really be part of that culture.”
Umbro shorts went with anything, partly because they came in so many colors, but mostly because it was the 90s. “Color coordination” in the early 90s meant “wear as many different colors as possible all at the same time.” Weird combinations, bright primaries, muted pastels and fluorescents made the era one of the most colorblind in popular fashion history. As if that all that weird color experimentation wasn’t enough, chemical science provided for ways to make the colors we wore change, depending on things like sunlight.
Hence, everyone had a drawer full of Umbros, both in the traditional colors and a range of wacky styles. The black-and-white pair were the base, the blue jeans of the preteen athletic-wear world. From there, kids added reds, blues, and even the oddly-popular-in-the-90s purple to the rotation.
Umbro shorts had features that made them great for kids in the summer. They dried quickly, being nylon, and had the added bonus of reflecting light (also because they were nylon). When the impromptu water balloon fight broke out, Umbros fit the bill. On summer evenings when the sun went down and kids went to play in the streets, Umbros helped them be seen by approaching cars.
“That reflective thing where everyone could see you from far away. They were like security shorts so you would wear them at night,” said DuBois.
Like all fads, the Umbro era didn’t last very long. On the soccer front, the brand actually helped spawn its own competition; despite introducing an iconic boot, the Speciali, in 1992, Umbro quickly fell behind as Nike and adidas battled it out in the boot game. Umbro’s cache and cool logo pushed American soccer kids to go for even more unique names like Diadora, Kappa, and Lotto, each with a European pedigree and an iconic trademark. Catalogs gave soccer players the same access to those brands that they originally had with Umbro, and in the race to be cool, being different mattered.
“When you were a kid in the 90s on a high school soccer team, you would get different gear just to be different,” said DuBois.
“It was all the magazines that were coming out, selling the different gear. It opened me up to Perla Negras and Diadora and all these other brands. Umbro was the jump off for all those,” explained Dunseth.
Umbro branching out into the lifestyle realm actually turned off the soccer set. Miriti Muringi, who grew up playing in Baltimore, remembers the role all of those insane colors played in pushing soccer types away from the brand.
“The Umbro neon movement (e.g, the shorts with one blue side and one hot pink side) led to a recognizable shift: while the experiment gained credibility in middle schools and high schools, a lot of soccer folks I knew were appalled by Project Neon,” he said. “Probably because it was clear that the shift in style, from a soccer perspective, felt inauthentic and was incompatible with the muted color palettes found on most soccer fields not frequented by Jorge Campos. Nevertheless, I imagine it was probably a smart business decision by Umbro, because blinding colors were everywhere.”
America slowly woke up from its neon-lit nightmare. By the mid-90s Cargo shorts arrived and quickly become the casual leg wear of choice. Soon, Umbro went back to being a soccer-only outfitter, seemingly satisfied to dabble in boots and produce kits for the next generation of players. Eventually growing competition from bigger companies in that realm forced a shift in the business, and Umbro transitioned from manufacturer to licensing organization.
By the end of the 90s, Umbro didn’t even make Umbro anymore, and the U.S. licensing passed to a third party most of us have never heard of. The heyday was surely and truly over. All those nylon shorts, resigned to the landfills of America, slowly degrading over a period of time much longer than their brief stint as the go-to garment of a whole generation.
It’s okay though, because those shorts did not look good. A pair of brightly colored Umbros, a graphic tee, and a pair of Sambas did not a fashion plate make. But it was the 90s, and the 90s were bad—Umbro was far from the worst of what we wore.
DuBois summed it up by evoking another of our terrible choices.
“This is a generation that thought Hypercolor was a good idea. Umbro was the Hypercolor of soccer fashion.”