Half a year ago newly Nike-owned football equipment manufacturers Umbro climatically spurted (by which I mean “revealed”) the new England national team shirt after an increasingly frenzied build-up of teasing previews and foreplayful bullshit. All big-selling mass-consumed football shirts are overhyped before you can get the thing over your head, but Umbro seemed to up the ante entirely.
Check out the webshite: http://www.umbro.com/england/#/?country=en&page=home
Before the orgasmic reveal – 28th March 2009 – there was what is now generally considered to be the biggest fuss ahead of the release of a new football kit. were teaser shots, close-ups of “revolutionary” new fabric, interviews with tailors and designers, quotes from “excited” players. More incredibly, word of mouth promotion was deliberately instigated, via programs such as an “Influence Dinner” (17 well connected Londoners, such as DJs, were wined, dined and given an early “reveal” of the kit) and – unbelievably! – taxi driver briefings! A drip-drip-drip feed of information deliberately creating a sense of very whetted appetite amongst the awaiting England fans & media organisations.
Most importantly, there was a huge and very deliberate emphasis on “History”. And by “History” they clearly meant “Tradition”. Rather than a dynamic process of change over time, Umbro were (selectively) using the base notion of what has gone before is automatically authentic and therefore desirable. The new shirt is traditional, thus it is good.
What I personally found most interesting (by which I mean absurd!) was this video:
It is a short promotional video connecting the history/tradition of England, both as football team and as a country/nation to the history/tradition of punk. This connection happens (where else?!) in what is presented as a underground hardcore punk scene somewhere in China. We briefly meet the charmingly named punk band “Gum Bleed” who mix regulation mohicans, studded leather, wall-of-sound & vacant snarling with what Umbro is ambitiously proposing as a regulation garment, a uniform of a (Br/Sl)ave New England: the new England football shirt!
In solitude one would assume it to be a failed attempt at viral marketing (it’s only had 652 views on YouTube thus far – but possibly significantly more on the Umbro website). But it was part of a wider and (it would seem) culturally/economically successful effort by the company.
Umbro utilised a bizarre but wholly contemporary combination of exhaustive business activity with a hijacking of the romance of history/tradition. Yes, punk’s representatives on Earth shuffle forward with a mixture of self-delight and multinational carrot-chasing to join the likes of Richart The (Homosexual) Lionheart’s three lions, the public school origins of Association Football, 1966 and all that… Traditions: Selected. Invented. Established. Establishment. Very Hobsbawmian.
Okay… aside from being the 76th final nail in the increasingly Hellraiser-esque coffin of “punk”, what else does this cultural artefact, this overblown white polo shirt mean?
It is indicative of a continuation – if not an acceleration – of the changing sense of Englishness. Gone are the days of Britain as a byword for The English Empire. The English (or at least those who believe they should care) are scrambling for a sense of self in our dichotomously complimentary globalising/localising world.
Sociologist Anthony King of Exeter has noted the England shirt’s shift from being based on the Union Flag (with the use of navy blue) to one more closely resembling the cross of St. George – a change mirrored in the flags waved by England fans. This new kit has dispensed entirely with the (surely “traditional”?!) blue shorts.
With the real world spaces of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, African colonies fast disappearing from view and/or plausible memory, Englishness must claim hold of new spaces, abstract spaces. This new shirt is the St. George’s flag plonked into virgin(?) territories such as punk and Saville Row tailoring (and thus a huge chunk of international fashion). Recreating Englishness is a surefire way of the shirt representing Englishness. Making sure it can be defined by what it’s defining.
This shirt represents/creates an imagined and/or fantasized sense of England so much that it would be more appropriate to call it an Albion shirt (and no, I don’t mean West Brom!).
Albion – the poetic, impossible, utopian notion of an imagined England where even the tramps wax lyrical. Now it’s got skyscrapers and focus group fucked cabbies!
(See http://www.utalkmarketing.com/Pages/Article.aspx?ArticleID=13611&Title=Umbro_stars_of_England_launch_2009_kit_with_passion for more on the marketing)
Edit: Just found this article – Football Culture? Umbro’s Made For It – in which Nike’s efforts to not only rebrand Umbro but set it up as occupying different market niches* to its new parent company are set in the context of a deliberate attempt to “to create a commentary on the nature of being English” and “building a new [brand] identity based on engaging consumers at points where football and culture “collide”.”
* = “The complementary positionings allow the company in effect to sell twice to the same customer. A person could be a Nike customer and also an Umbro customer for completely different reasons.”