Down a goods delivery ramp and past the bins is an unexpected location for an exhibition about football shirts — but that’s what you can find underneath a Marylebone building at the moment.

The exhibition marks the centenary of the British sportswear brand Umbro, which was founded in 1924 by brothers Harold and Wallace Humphreys. The company’s name is a portmanteau of um, from Humphreys, and bro, from brothers.

However, it’s not entirely a look back at the history of the company and more a look back at how the firm has collaborated with fashion designers and the slow transition from pure sportswear into modern-day casual clothing ranges. As such, there’s not a huge amount about the company’s history in the exhibition, but you do learn a decent amount about how the design of the clothes and the logos changed over the decades.

It turns out that the company’s diamond logo was never seen on the clothes — other than the inside label — until the 1970s when increased commercialisation of sport saw the logo finally become more visible. Today it’s almost impossible to imagine sports clothes outside Wimbledon that aren’t festooned with corporate branding.

That’s the aspect of sports clothing that fascinates me the most — I can understand a fan wanting to wear the same clothes and styles as their sporting heroes, but when that means also being a walking billboard for all the corporate sponsors as well, it seems unappealing.

Then again, it’s not a free for all. As the exhibition explains, FIFA’s regulations governing the type of clothing, colours, and branding that’s permitted are 128 pages long.

As much of the clothing on display is fashion wear, they’re not as bound by the rules, although I doubt a sports brand today would get away with a design based on the patterns created by shining a light through a cigarette ashtray. The past was a strange place.

You get a sense of the absurdity of fashion prices, though, when looking at a tartan short and learning that the designer once printed a logo onto some $36 shirts and sold them for $550 each.

Overall, even for this visitor, who is utterly disinterested in football, it’s an interesting exhibition showing off a slice of history that I doubt I would have ever thought to investigate otherwise.

The exhibition, Umbro 100: Sportswear x Fashion, is at Ambika P3 on Marylebone Road a short walk from Baker Street tube station. It’s part of the University of Westminster, but you don’t find it inside the main building, so look for the disused public loos outside, and the entrance is next to them, then down the steps to the basement goods yard.

It’s free to visit and open daily 11am to 7pm until Saturday 28th April 2024.

A final note – they’re very keen for you to fill in the feedback forms. Very keen indeed.


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