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Uniforms: Designed With the Fan in Mind

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Traditionalists might have liked it better if everybody wasn’t saying “periwinkle” so much, but the presentation of the Angels’ new baseball uniforms this week actually invoked one of the oldest and richest customs of big-time sports history--shopping for clothes.

The playing field has always been part fashion-show runway. Even the New York Yankees, who have not changed their basic look since the 1920s, were ostensibly adhering to one of the commandments of couture when they first incorporated their signature pinstripes using vertical lines to make the rotund Babe Ruth appear slimmer.

“It only seems as though teams are changing uniforms more often now because there are so many more teams,” says Marc Okkonen, whose book “Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century” (Sterling Publishing, $20) chronicles an astonishing spectrum of sartorial achievements and offenses. “Percentage-wise, it’s about the same as it’s ever been.”

This spring, the well-dressed Angel will be rotating his wardrobe among three pinstriped ensembles combining red, white, navy blue and, yes, periwinkle, each adorned with a flying A.

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Some people will remember that color scheme and insignia from a famous old gas station. Others will recall that it’s the sixth make-over in the team’s 37-year history and the second in five seasons.

Everybody should realize that it comes with no guarantees.

“This uniform will last as long as it is making the statement the team wants to make,” says Chuck Champlin, director of communications for Disney Consumer Products, which oversaw the uniform’s creation and development. “There is a long-term commitment, but this is a team willing to try new things.”

Actually, the uniform conveys that statement pretty effectively. The pinstripes respectfully borrow from the classicism of the Yankees, says Champlin, and the other elements promote the optimism and adventure of the nonspecific future.

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Especially that periwinkle.

“It’s very subtle. You’ve got to look for it,” Champlin says, referring to a blue hue in the uniforms that derives its color and funny name from the delicate blossoms of a trailing garden plant . . . or a small sea snail. “Periwinkle subliminally says that this is a team that’s going to set off in new directions.”

If not on the field, then maybe in the sporting-goods store. Dressing for success is still the objective of a sports uniform, but the meaning of success has mutated during the last decade as the merchandising of sports apparel has grown into a $12-billion-a-year business.

No Angels players modeled the new uniforms at their coming-out party. Instead, the outfits were displayed on a pair of department-store dummies.

Intentional or not, that was significant. Angels players will make up only a tiny fraction of the people wearing the caps, jerseys and jackets. These get-ups have become the clothes of Everymannequin.

“Now when we design a uniform, we don’t only consider what it’s going to look like on the players on the field,” says Brian McCarthy of the National Football League. “We think about how well it’s going to look on a 6-year-old girl sitting in the stands with her 70-year-old grandfather, who is also wearing it.”

Mike Jacobsen, editor of Sportstyle, a trade magazine for sporting-goods manufacturers and retailers, says, “The design of a uniform is 99% driven by merchandising. Just about every team in every league is looking for new ways to generate interest and income, and one of the easiest is to change its uniform.

“Either they change their primary look or they go to second and even third uniforms. Fans keep buying them, trying to stay current. Others keep buying them, trying to stay hip.”

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Winning and losing? That’s not always part of the merchandising equation.

“A winning team, like the Green Bay Packers right now, can have a lot to do with the popularity of merchandise. So can a star player, like Michael Jordan,” says Peter Seligman of Pro Player, the sports-apparel division of Fruit of the Loom. “But a new design can do wonders for increasing the sales of a team that has not been winning. And winning or not, nobody stays with a design that’s not selling.”

That explains the Denver Broncos’ introduction of a new football uniform two weeks ago. The Broncos had the best regular-season record in the American Football Conference and a strong fan base, but they had the same basic burnt-orange color scheme since 1977.

“Changes like that have everything to do with the national merchandising market,” says Sportstyle’s Jacobsen. “Everybody in the local market had already bought it.”

Though the new design minimizes the color that gave the team its Orange Crush nickname, the transition went more smoothly than when it rejected another fashion element--vertically striped socks--35 years ago. Many Denver fans still remember the sock-burning ceremony of 1962.

The pioneers of uniform design are frequently expansion teams.

In 1988, the Charlotte Hornets entered the National Basketball Assn. with uniforms created by fashion designer Alexander Julian, who introduced teal along with white and subtle shades of purple into V-neck jerseys and pleated shorts with wide, boxing-trunk waist bands. Merchandise from the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins were among baseball’s best sellers before the teams had ever played a game.

That’s currently the case with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball team, which begins competition this season. And on Monday night, the eve of Disney’s unveiling of the Angels’ new duds, the Mighty Ducks hockey uniform won first place at the ESPY Fashion Awards Show in New York. Meanwhile, the team continues to struggle for a National Hockey League playoff spot with a losing record.

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Messing with the uniforms of established and successful franchises gets mixed fan reaction. Nobody complained two years ago when the San Francisco 49ers football team made a midseason switch to nostalgic-styled uniforms from their past and went on to win the Super Bowl.

But there was an outcry from fans when the Houston Rockets basketball team followed back-to-back NBA championships by changing their uniforms.

“People were superstitious, nervous about a change,” says Tim Frank, a spokesman for the Rockets. “But those old uniforms were ugly, mustard-yellow and red. When I wore a team sweatsuit, my wife would call me Ronald McDonald.

“These days, nobody even talks about it anymore. Our colors are blue and silver with a nice dark red, and people have come to understand that these are our uniforms. It improves their wardrobes too. Our merchandise sales are phenomenal.”

Uniform changes are closely monitored by some sports, which have established procedures for application and approval of new colors, designs and logos since all the teams share merchandising profits equally.

“In our league, a team must petition one year in advance and we work with them,” says the NFL’s McCarthy. “We research the history of the team and its city, we go to the city and interview fans, avid and casual, as well as nonfans to get their ideas.”

Contrast this with the process of finding a logo for the helmets of the Cleveland Browns in 1964. The league suggested an understated CB emblem. But quarterback Frank Ryan objected, claiming the blue-collar team didn’t need “any Mickey Mouse stuff” on their helmets, and the suggestion was killed forever.

A periwinkle-colored team might have different needs, however.

Once a logo is registered, licensed manufacturers can twist and spin it into any number of permutations.

“We try to be on the pulse of the latest fashion trends,” says Pro Player’s Seligman. “The more fashionable and fashion-forward we can be, the more likely we are to be relevant and successful.”

Seligman credited this approach for the success of Pro Player’s stylish reversible jackets, which give wearers the option of showing a team’s home or away colors. Then again, Pro Player also had big success with Super Bowl shirts for New England Patriots that read: Squeeze the Cheese.

“A team’s uniform represents its community,” McCarthy contends. “Licensed merchandise is one of the few ways a person can feel part of the team. Not everyone can throw a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl, but everyone can dress like [Green Bay Packers quarterback] Brett Favre. A good logo can help a community and a team define themselves.”

Okkonen, the author of the baseball uniform book, chuckles when he hears such claims.

“I think that’s hogwash. It’s gimmickry,” he says. “What’s supposed to be some kind of revolutionary uniform usually grows tiresome or even becomes repulsive.”

Baseball, in particular, went through a period of very weird uniforms in the 1970s, when the Houston Astros wrapped themselves in rainbows, the Pittsburgh Pirates looked like bumblebees, and the Chicago White Sox wore black short pants. Recently, there’s been a trend toward more conservative styles.

“I’m a little concerned about a consumer backlash because sometimes people feel they are being manipulated,” says Sport style’s Jacobsen. “In that sense, I consider myself lucky to be a Yankees fan.”


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