Paired with shorts, trackies, or even a pair of jeans, basketball shirts are a common sight even in a country were it’s not a prominent sport. The popularity of the vests - particularly those Chicago Bulls ones worn by the most famous baller of them all - seems to have seen an upturn along with other Pro Sport pieces. Fuelled by the popular Netflix series The Last Dance and peoples love of 90s nostalgia, NBA fashion is strong, even if it did take about 100 years.
Where it Started
Basketball’s inception can be traced back to 1890 when a simpler version of the game was created by American PE teacher, James Naismith. Considering most modern football clubs were developed around the same time - the game itself being invented long before - basketball is a pretty modern invention so it’s unsurprising fashion took so long to catch up.
Fashion of the day tended towards the formal, sportswear didn’t really exist in the way that we know it, so it was unlikely that anyone would have been rocking a basketball shirt under a frock coat with a nice bowler hat. It wasn’t until the 1920s that uniforms started to resemble the ones we know today, not a bad turnaround really considering they were pinning baskets to walls 30 years earlier.
The original uniforms consisted of long sleeves and long padded shorts, unrecognisable to anyone today and not something you’d really want to wear when out and about. In fact it’s doubtful they much wanted to wear them on the court. When nylon blends came in around the 1930s fashions had changed, casual wear was becoming more popular; casual being a nice sweater or an unstarched shirt. Not walking around with both your arms out for the world to see!
Short Shorts and Converse
Tighter shirts and shorter shorts were paired with high top Converse, which sounds like an outfit you see today (when it’s hot enough anyway). There wasn’t really much difference in cut or shape for many years, the only thing that now started to develop - as time went on and attitudes changed - were the more flamboyant, bright colours started to appear.
Even then it would be quite a while before anyone would wear a vest outside of the players. It’s not entirely clear when replica shirts started to be produced, there are some images of fans in the 80s wearing their team vests, but you can be pretty sure their boom in popularity then, as now, had something to do with one man.
Jordan was to change basketball fashion forever. When he was starting out there was a rule of uniformity that extended to footwear. When Jordan decided to wear red and black Nikes in 1984 he was about to open the door for others to do the same. In fact rumour has it that Nike paid his $5,000 per game fines just so he could wear those legendary Jordans that people clamber to buy to this day. Jordan was also the first to get the short shorts changed to the baggier basketball shorts we are so familiar with.
Things seem to still have been mostly restricted to players rather than the thousands of vests you see at games and in the streets today. It wouldn’t be until later in Jordan’s career that we’d see mass production and wearing of team shirts. How many number 23s must’ve been printed in the mid-late 90s? It’s hard to say but looking at photos of the time, and how many pass through The Vintage Store, this is when basketball shirts really took off.
The rise of hip-hop culture in the 90s also had a great influence on players and fans alike. Hip-hop and basketball became synonymous, rappers were wearing prosport and ballers were hanging out with the rappers. Vests were moving out of the stadiums and into streetwear. Snoop was wearing Lakers, Jay Z in Bulls, and fans were quick to follow suit. Who doesn’t want to look like Uncle Snoop?
The early 00s saw another shift in the market: the emergence of the vintage replica. Rappers like Fabulous, hip hop moguls P. Diddy and the basketball stars themselves all got that vintage look: the Larry Bird original or an early 90’s Shaq. Fashion follows fame and the boom was truly in effect.
As cyclical as the fashion world is we are once again seeing a rise in basketball shirts being bought, only this time we’re consuming those replicas that are now vintage because they were made 20 plus years ago. The rise in the vintage clothing market and the huge demand for collectibles means that once again basketball shirts are flooding the streets. It can’t be too long now until a Lebron vest is considered retro pro sport gear.
Here in the UK, with no basketball shown on mainstream television, the vests are mostly a fashion-conscious choice. Attendance at UK basketball games is low and not many people are hungry for a UK team shirt. We want Boston Celtics, LA Lakers, while Drake made people hunt the stores for Toronto Raptors vests. They’re particularly popular among the festival crowds and with the blazing summer we’ve had this year, they show no signs of stopping anytime soon.