When “Mean Joe” Greene famously tossed his jersey to a kid in a Coke commercial in 1979, it felt revelatory—until that time, it wasn’t patently obvious that throwing a dirty shirt at someone was a loving gesture. A generation later, when Dennis Rodman was hurling his game-worn jerseys into stands and sending spectators into frenzies, the meaning of the gesture had crystallized. But what happened in between to bang home the point that a sports jersey meant so much more than the sum of its fabric and stitching?
The story starts with the post-industrial shifts that ravaged the American city in the 1980s exerting a disproportionate effect on its poorer communities, leading many young people—particularly of color—to hip hop. It didn’t take long for sports gear to become hip hop’s coat of arms, heralding that the wearer was part of the burgeoning subculture. It made sense as the athletes representing their cities on the field or on the playing court were frequently from the same worlds that they were. Athletic uniforms became an empowering symbol, signifying, in no uncertain terms, that the wearer had made it.
Look at the earliest photos of N.W.A. accessorizing their Cholo gangster style with L.A. Kings and Raiders snapbacks and Starter jackets or the way Detroit Pistons, Pittsburgh Pirates, and L.A. Raiders garb adorned Public Enemy’s Chuck D with a majesty that was the perfect counterweight to sidekick Flavor Flav’s court jester clock necklace and joker-grill. Or, think of Luther Campbell on the cover of his solo album I Got Shit on My Mind—a University of Miami snapback perched on his head like a crown as he sits upon a porcelain throne.
And think of the Beastie Boys—who not only referenced the sports world in their attire (snapbacks, knit hats, Adidas kicks), but all over their music. Just in 1994’s Ill Communication they managed to namedrop 3/5 of the starting lineup of their hometown New York Knicks. But, picking up where Kurtis Blow left off with his 1984 hit, “Basketball,” what was truly peculiar and innovative about the Beastie Boys’ attitude towards sports was their ostensibly retro-orientation. Over the course of the ’90s, they were a veritable PR machine for old-time sports greats including Rod Carew, Dick Butkus, Clyde Frazier, Phil Rizzuto, and Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh. The effect was not unlike the effect of other non-sports related Beastie Boys references, to help locate the three Middle Class white rappers in their own context of authenticity.
The Beastie Boys weren’t the only cultural innovators looking backwards for inspiration in the mid-late 90s. It was around this time, that “second hand” clothing started being referred to as “vintage.” It may now seem naïve, but it felt rebellious when Kate Moss started wearing vintage fashion on the streets of London (long before it was the name of her eponymous fragrance) or when Kurt Cobain and other grunge acts were thrifting for flannels at the Salvation Army (long before Perry Ellis had created a “Grunge line”). Vintage signified disdain for the mass-produced “uniforms” of high street brands and ensured that the wearer’s look would seem original. So, then what happened when vintage values mixed with a culture that was increasingly prostrating itself to the “uniform” as it was within hip hop culture?
New meanings for vintage sports apparel were germinating throughout the culture. In 1989’s Do the Right Thing, for instance, Bed-Stuy pizza delivery boy, Mookie (Spike Lee), brandished an old Brooklyn Dodgers jersey while a white gentrifying interloper sported a then-current Larry Bird T-shirt. A conflict had arisen between old and new school sports gear that didn’t merely have aesthetic repercussions, but moral ones as well. Old school meant being authentic, and indigenous whereas new school meant being alien and dangerous to the community.
But the spread of sports vintage wasn’t just fueled by cultural trends, but by economic forces as well. The rise of the Internet and websites like eBay freed the vintage jersey buyer from the geographical limits of his/her own neighborhood and established a marketplace for what had been, up to that point, a small community of collectors. Writer Paul Lukas, who maintains the Uni-Watch blog chronicling “the obsessive study of athletics aesthetics” and who is pretty much the Cathy Horyn of sportswear, sees the proliferation of licenses granted by the various sports leagues at around this time to be a key development in the growing phenomenon.
Says Lukas: “A generation before, companies that made sportswear, like Wilson and Rawlings, were athletic outfitters selling their product at sporting good store. Nike, Adidas, and Reebok, however, are lifestyle brands, not athletic outfitters. They started to use athletic wear to advance lifestyle branding, for purposes other than establishing a team’s visual identity. Their interest was pure and simple—to sell merchandise.”
According to Lukas, this set of developments had both aesthetic and ethical repercussions: “The retro design was simpler and followed a ‘less is more’ credo. It had been all done in analogue and had a handcrafted, organic feel (as opposed to feeling like it was the result of 20 board meetings). When the goal was lifestyle branding, sports apparel started to feel mass-produced…. And the messages changed. The new apparel seemed to be all about fear and intimidation. Look at the old Milwaukee Bucks logo in which the mascot is spinning a ball on its hoof or the old Dallas Chaparral (ABA) dribbling ball. These mascots were totally non-badass, but they were totally cool.”
One of the unintended consequences of lifestyle sports marketing has been, in Lukas’ words, to “throw the counterpoint into higher relief.” In other words, a 1979 Los Angeles Rams jersey is still a 1979 Los Angeles Rams jersey, but because of the nature of the designs that started being mass marketed, the 1979 jersey began to look all the more retro and fresh. It can be argued, then, that the greatest thing to happen to vintage sportswear was, ironically, the degradation of contemporary sportswear. Companies like Nike, Adidas, and Reebok have established a marketplace that needs to own sportswear, but also seeks an antidote for its own bad design.
In the late-’90s and early-’00s, companies like Mitchell & Ness and Distant Replays obtained licenses from the major sports leagues to sell retro sports apparel, which became increasingly popular with entertainers and athletes, but there has been a more current resurgence as well. In malls across America, retro hats are perched side-by-side, and frequently outnumber, contemporary hats and stores catering exclusively to the vintage-inspired sports apparel enthusiast are popping up all over the country. There is ThrowbacksNW in the Capitol Hill section of Seattle, the NoMas online store based in New York City, NewJackCitySF in the Mission District of San Francisco, and the undisputed champion of them all, And Still,in the La Brea District in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, high profile celebs (Tracy Morgan, Kevin Smith, Justin Timberlake) continue wearing them, and a national television show chronicling their purveyors. Grey Flannel Auctions is the subject of a new television series, All-Star Dealers, which premiered on Discovery just last month.
Contemporary sports leagues themselves are even jumping on the bandwagon, each regularly trotting their players onto the playing field in retro uniforms (which, of course, are made available for purchase at the merchandise counter). This season, the NBA will even have several teams wearing retro uniforms paying homage to the ABA, the rival league it eventually usurped in 1976.
Retro sports apparel has largely been misunderstood in the media. ESPN’s Bill Simmons, for instance, opined that the now billion-dollar sports retro industry owed its success to a crude form of rational self-interest: “That’s the thing about throwbacks: you never have to worry. Pete Mavarich isn’t getting traded from the ’77 Jazz. Nolan Ryan isn’t getting traded from the ’80 Astros. Not only are you exercising a form of personal expression…but you aren’t blowing $200 on a potential lemon….”
For Simmons, wearing retro gear is but the logical response of a fan reluctant to invest in a symbolic relationship with a hometown player who might in the not-so-distant future be wearing another team’s colors. The problem with this argument is that the kids buying retro sports gear today are more likely to be thinking about whether a logo looks badass, a jersey’s color looks good with their pants or whether they simply own something that no one else can find than they are about showing good old-fashioned team spirit. Kirk Tilton, co-owner of And Still, tells me that it’s likely that 90 percent of his customers haven’t even heard of a player that goes back before Michael Jordan. “And even then,” he says, “they have no idea of the mainstays—the Steve Kerrs and Mark Prices.” The reason that And Still can sell an L.A. Kings signature vintage snapback for $300 isn’t because Wayne Gretzky starred for the team during that era, but because Eazy-E wore it back in the day.
A sales rep at And Still tells me that the hottest items in the store are deadstock items of players who appeared only briefly for a team and who weren’t necessarily even that talented—Cedric Ceballos on the Lakers or Shawn Bradley on the 76ers, for instance. That these items are in high demand has little to do with the players who wore them—it has to do with how hard they are to find and the status that they incur as a result.
The meaning of sports vintage today is only decipherable against the landscape of contemporary hip hop. Corporate ballers like Jay-Z, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, and Will Smith tend to wear contemporary sports designs—frequently, of the New York Yankees, the “General Motors” of sports franchises, signifying the r mainstream aspirations. Meanwhile, those more concerned with their street cred—i.e. Rick Ross, Wale, Big Sean, and Nas—tend to show up more often than not in retro gear. Last year, Tyga even boasted that the retro sports phenomenon owed its origins to him when he released the song “Snapbacks Back,” featuring Chris Brown. The video depicts the two rappers and a slew of honeys in old school Chicago Bulls gear and L.A. Kings hats that Brown claimed, in a recent interview, were an homage to the one Eazy-E wore back in the day.
If you need any more proof of the power of retro sportswear consider the “riots” over Air Jordan Concords this past Christmas. All over America, scuffles broke out and police were brought in to quell unrest following the re-release of perhaps the most popular Air Jordans ever created. In the suburbs of Seattle, police were forced to use pepper spray on a group of customers. In Jersey City, New Jersey, a man was stabbed while waiting in line to buy the shoes. At the Hilltop Mall in Richmond, California, police turned crowds away after a gunshot was heard. The staying power of the Jordan brand, 13 years and counting after Michael Jordan’s retirement from basketball, testifies to the power of retro in contemporary sports culture. Those of us who, 13 years ago, were speculating on who Nike would choose as its corporate ambassador after “His Airness” retired are today likely embarrassed by their earlier naiveté. Unlike Jordan the player, Jordan the shoe only grows more resilient with age.
The cynical take on all of this is that lifestyle brands today are simultaneously ruining sportswear design and capitalizing on its discontents by selling retro designs to kids who may or may not know anything about them other than they look fly and match their sneakers. The flip side is that the cherished designs of a generation ago, like the baseball cards of our parents or our parents’ parents aren’t being dumped into the dustbin of history, but are being allowed to live and breath on the streets as reminders of otherwise forgotten heroes—like street art that can’t be painted over.
1 In fact, MAD magazine did a parody of the commercial in which the Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Famer tossed the kid a soiled jock strap.
2Interestingly, both Ice Cube and Chuck D formally studied design. You can even see Ice Cube wax artistic about the legacy of Charles and Ray Eames in a recent promotional video for The Getty Museum’s Pacific Standard Time.
3 A classic even while making the outlandish claim that Ralph Sampson was “really mean.”
4 E.g., New York City newsman Ernie Anastos, Happy Days spinoff characters Chachi & Joanie and standup comedienne Phyllis Diller.
5 By a young designer named Marc Jacobs.
6 Lee’s character in his 1996 film She’s Gotta Have It, Mars Blackmon, would become the de facto mascot for brand Jordan.