Not a title I was expecting to write but research does take you to surprising places sometimes. With multi-million pound transfers of footballers between clubs in the news, the football season not even started yet, maybe this is a chance to look back to the nineteenth century, when football was still much loved and very partisan, but perhaps not quite so glitzy.
Current premiership side Everton, playing as such from 1879, were in the news in 1894 when they contributed to the Theatrical Football Gala, to raise money for local hospital charities. Starting off with a schoolboy football match, the two sides representing the north and south of Liverpool, the newspaper commented that this was the first time such a match had been played properly in Liverpool at school boy level and ‘if such matches as these were more often played there would be a distinct advantage in the football talent of this city’. This match was followed by fun sporting events such as egg and spoon races and three-legged races before the main event, the football burlesque.
Football burlesque was a similar idea to the charity matches played by clubs today. The home team of Everton was pitted against a team made up of music hall and theatre artistes in Liverpool, who seem to have played it for laughs as much as possible. Although the ‘rain poured pitilessly down’, not unusually for February, the game was played in high spirits. To give a comic air, the Everton team all wore smock frocks and top hats. The theatre team was in their own costumes. Falls were numerous and amusing, there were ‘piles of struggling humanity…for no apparent reason’ and no one was sure how many goals were scored. Nobody paid any attention to the referee’s whistle, off-side was given and a board bearing the title was placed around the offenders neck, and, by the end, the ‘mutual scores were enormous’ although no one was counting or seemed to care who had won. It seems that a good time was had by all raising money for worthy causes and with a certain degree of abandonment, despite the weather. The smock frock took its place to add a comic dimension to the Everton footballers.
The comic potential of wearing essentially a knee-length skirt to play football in had also been seen the previous year in 1893 when the Derbyshire Courier reported on the defeat of the Riddings by South Normanton, a club still in existence today. It was suggested, perhaps unkindly, that Harry Street, the goalkeeper, should dress in women’s attire or a farmers’ smock frock so there would be less probability of scoring goals between his legs. The writer suggested that this could become an attraction in itself, spectators coming to see the ‘frock smocked goalkeeper’, implying the humiliation of Street.
Women’s football was a developing sport at the time, and would become huge in the early twentieth century. However, it seems that they too chose to wear knickerbockers for ease of movement and practicality, risking scandal, rather than any skirted garment. The smock frock in the 1890s was seen at outdated, comic and embarrassing to wear, especially for footballers!