Origin Stories – Arsenal’s white sleeves

  • For more Arsenal kit mythbusting, see The Arsenal History.
  • For Arsenal’s mid-1960s return to plain red shirts and the re-adoption of white sleeves, see here

Today marks the 86th anniversary of a notable development in football kit history.

For the first 46 of their existence, Arsenal – first as Dial Square, then Royal Arsenal and Woolwich Arsenal – had worn plain red shirts, generally paired with white shorts after an early flirtation with navy ‘knickers’.

This is how the club looked at the beginning of the 1932-33 season, having come second in the league and lost the FA Cup final in the previous campaign (for the final, and the 1930 decider, the shirts featured white collars).

However, manager Herbert Chapman was always seeking ways to innovate – even if history has bestowed upon him inventions which were not necessarily his. One method was in aiding on-pitch identification, with the development of hooped socks, as above.

March 4, 1933 would see an even more dramatic change as Arsenal took to the field at Highbury for their game against Liverpool looking like this:

The account on the official Arsenal site leaves a lot to be desired:

It was the arrival of manager Herbert Chapman, the ‘Great Innovator’, in 1925 that launched the Arsenal kit as we know it today. Depending on which source you believe, Chapman either noticed someone at the ground wearing a red sleeveless sweater over a white shirt or played golf with famous cartoonist of the day Tom Webster, who wore something similar. Either way, the ‘look’ inspired the manager to create a new strip combining a red shirt with white collar and sleeves. It also incorporated the Club badge, which was positioned on the left-hand side of the shirt.

Neither of those stories is correct, though one is closer to the truth – the truth which has featured in the book The Official History of Arsenal, by Phil Soar and Martin Tyler (yes, the commentator). However, to get the most comprehensive tale, we defer, as ever, to the magnificent The Arsenal Shirt, by Simon Shakeshaft and James Elkin.

The cartoonist Tom Webster was playing golf, but it was with Claude Kirby, the chairman of Chelsea, rather than Chapman. Webster showed up for their round in Blackpool wearing a blue sleeveless sweater over a white polo shirt and Kirby was taken with the look. He suggested to the Chelsea manager that the team should wear something similar, but Calderhead vetoed the idea.

Having a conversation with Chapman over a drink in Sheffield, Webster mentioned the incident and a bulb lit in Chapman’s brain, and he apparently ordered that a bottle of red ink be brought to the bar so that the cartoonist could provide an artist’s impression of what an Arsenal version would look like.

According to The Arsenal Shirt, Arsenal contacted the Football League seeking permission to change, though the initial request only mentioned a switch to white collars and cuffs – possibly an oversight. What is certain is that, on Friday, March 3, 1933, Chapman put in an order with Nottingham-based textile manufacturer Hollins & Co. for ten sleeveless tops in Viyella, a mixture of merino and cotton. These jerseys were to be worn over the club’s white change shirts.

It was also decided at this time to change the socks from black to blue, with white hoops (finding a red dye that wouldn’t run in the wash was proving difficult).

The next day’s Nottingham Evening Post noted the news:

At half past two yesterday afternoon Mr. H. Chapman, the Arsenal manager, telephoned Hollins and Co. and ordered red Viyella jerseys for the team.

Details were given over the telephone, work begun at once and the jerseys despatched from the factory at six o’clock.

Former Arsenal player, trainer and manager Tom Whittaker, in his book Tom Whittaker’s Arsenal, recalled “delighted cries and whistles from the crowd” as they ran out in what he called “pillar-box red shirts”, though the new look didn’t have an immediately positive effect as Liverpool won 1-0.

A draw with Leicester and defeats at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United followed, but in early April Arsenal beat title rivals Aston Villa (5-0) and Sheffield Wednesday (4-2) and went on to the win their second title, retaining it in each of the following two seasons.

The Arsenal Shirt notes that there is no evidence as to when the team stopped wearing the pullovers, but by the beginning of 1933-34, one-piece shirts, made by Bukta, were worn.

There is a legend that, with the problem of red dye running still persisting, the white sleeves were unstitched from the red bodies after each game and washed separately. However true that may be, the new look was there to stay and would influence teams like Hibernian, Braga of Portugal and Roy Race’s Melchester Rovers.

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