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Lace cuffs perhaps, gentlemen?
Uniform does not have to mean dull, drab, or characterless. Football referees have quite a pedigree of fashion to distinguish them from players.

In the 1890s, life was simple for the arbiter because the gentlemen players decided most of their differences between themselves. The referee, usually bearded, could stand in the centre of the field in a long black coat, top hat, polished shoes with spats, and communicate directions by waving a gold-topped cane (figure 1). He could even be smoking a cigar and digesting a copious Old Boys lunch, rounded off with a fine brandy. Those were the days, my friends; those were the days.
Soon after, two umpires appeared on the field holding small flags and acting mainly as goal judges. Figure 2 illustrates a moment during the 1891 FA Cup Final
that shows one official kitted out in the style of the day and wearing glasses.
One year later, at Charterhouse School, the Old Boys met the Old Carthusians Internationals on the playing fields in front of the impressive college chapel. The referee looked elegant in a black cap, white short-sleeved shirt, cream breeches, grey-brown stockings and tan boots (figure 3). He epitomised the image of a gentleman amateur referee of the time. William Pickford wrote in his 1906 book How to Referee that “In the first place, the referee must be a gentleman.” He enlightens us as to the qualities of a gentleman thus; “it is to be firm as well as courteous, to treat all men as brothers until they prove unworthy of the confidence, to be tactful in manner, to be honest and truthful, just
to all, bearing neither temper, malice or ill-will, and yet fearless, decisive, and capable.”
With the arrival of competition, the game needed an active official to follow the play and be close to incidents. For ease of movement, Pickfotd advised “a light, loose garb — attire of simple character, avoiding flaring colours and any eccentricities of dress.” The front cover of his book (figure 4) shows a turn-of-the-century referee in full sprint wearing a cap, shirt and tie, jacket and knickerbockets tucked into black stockings with white tops. He wore football boots — probably the celebrated McGregor laced ankle-to-toe model available for the equivalent of 48 pence, or large sizes at 64 pence, post free.
Three contrasting styles. seen at the 1927 Italy v. Spain match, refereed by Sir Stanley Rous, emphasised the lack of uniformity in uniforms. — John Langerus, the Belgian referee of 81 international marches, wore” riding breeches at the historic 1930 FIFA World Cup final in Uruguay and sometimes a woollen cap, even in sweltering heat. With his immaculate white shirt and tie he did not need to change for dinner. Jim Wiltshire, born in Cornwell, preferred a comfortable black woollen pullover – smart and very practical in British winters – and wore it for this 1947 match between Belgium and Holland.
After World War II, Ken Aston put his mind to the need for a standard design for referee uniforms and persuaded manufacturers to buy up stocks of war¬time blackout fabrics. The good-quality cotton proved ideal for all seasons and was adopted for thousands of uniforms to a basic design.
Nylon edged out cotton after a few years because it was cheaper and easily cut to patterns. Although it lacked the softness and warmth of cotton, its glossy sheen looked more modern. The style spread to other countries, but at the 1966 FIFA World Cup™ final we saw the Russian referee, Tofik Bakhramov, displaying his country’s preferred style in black wool and a white belt.
Black remained the official choice, although in matches where players wore colours which could cause confusion, the referee might choose something less conflicting — such as the red, green and yellow striped college blazer worn by Leslie Mackay in a 1950s international match where Scotland played in dark blue. In a Ghanaian first division match, my white face and knees were not distinct enough to avoid a possible clash when Cape Coast Vipers turned out in their all-black strip against Accra Olympics. My only option was to wear a blue and white striped towelling beach shirt: that served the purpose without fuss.
In the 1960s, some of us were bored with the funereal black for match officials – it had become too dull for the third team in a modern game that was blooming as an exciting, colourful spectacle. We admired a trio of Dutch officials who came to London for a European match. Even before setting foot on the pitch, they created a favourable impression with their dress and demeanour. All three were groomed in smart black blazers, white shirts, colourful Dutch FA ties, grey worsted trousers and shining black shoes. With short hairstyles they looked fit — athletes in civvies – a team proudly representing their football association and country. But it was their field uniform which opened dulled eyes. Over black shorts, white-topped stockings and lightweight football boots, they sported crimson rugby-style long-sleeved shirts with white collars and cuffs. They contrasted sharply with the players and looked an elegant and integral part of a sporting spectacle. The march was hotly
contested but the third ream had an excellent game and kept it in check with impressive confidence.
In 1967, the Association of Football League Referees and Linesmen (AFLR&L) organised a ground-breaking annual conference at the Crystal Palace Sports Centre, London. Denis Howell, popularly known as the “M.P. Referee” and the first minister for sport, described it as “an exciting development” in his book Soccer Refereeing, He wrote: “The Association has turned its annual conference from a talking shop about refereeing politics into practical sessions dealing with techniques of match control. This is a very sensible and worthwhile development which must bring good results.”
Previous conferences had attracted mostly retired referees and the event was more a social gathering than a meeting of active league officials. The new format appealed to the majority of serving league officials and drew many to the sports complex. Top administrators of The Football Association and the Football League attended and took part in discussions ranging from on-field control to protection against violence.
One topic focussed on referees’ uniforms. We arranged for a supplier to provide us with several alternative styles to the familiar all-black image. Varied designs and colours of half and full-sleeved jerseys, shirts, jackets, shorts and stockings were modelled by self-conscious volunteers in
a fashion parade who were subjected to humorous banter from their colleagues. A questionnaire invited comments and votes for preferred models but the outcome was disappointing – those present indicated by a small majority that they were not ready to move away from the old black attire.
It would be another twenty years or so before colour and styling was introduced into the British version of the referee’s uniform. The Premier League, formed in 1992, introduced green-shirted officials with green-topped black stockings, and has since changed the styles and colouring of the uniform fairly regularly. Traditionalists are appalled to see that some referees are obliged to wear uniforms bearing publicity logos or a sponsor’s message.
On the global scene, the FIFA World Cup™ tournaments since 1990 have featured referees in black, grey, burgundy, yellow, blue and green outfits. Most modern styles fit the image of an athlete with a vital role in today’s game (figure 9).
Despite the rainbow selection on offer in other countries, the Football Association in England still prefers its referees to wear traditional black but allows a little styling with white flashes or piping. The latest designs are worn by male and female referees but, with growing numbers of the fair sex taking up the whistle, it may not be long before the referee’s uniform shows interesting variations to cater for the fashion-wise ladies.
Lace cuffs perhaps, gentlemen?