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At the dawn of its final week, the likeliest winner of the World Cup appears to be a navy blue waistcoat. A vicar in Sheffield performed an homage to England manager Gareth Southgate, who has made the garment his signature, by wearing it to church on Sunday. In Doncaster, local officials flew a waistcoat atop a flagpole. Political commentator Andrew Marr presented his BBC show while wearing the item. Sales of waistcoats at England’s official supplier, Marks and Spencer, are reportedly up by 35 percent.
This is not how things usually go. No, not just the football bit, though it’s definitely aberrant for England to be likable, cohesive, and still in the World Cup at this late date. Rather, what stands out is that a manager and his signature clothing item have not been turned into a punchline. His predecessors have not been so lucky. Managerial fashion is a touchy subject in any workplace, but in football it’s a veritable minefield.
The gauntlet managers in England must navigate is hardly new. Their position has been fraught since it first emerged in the late 19th century, when the payment of players was first sanctioned and clubs became professional environments. Owners imported their organizational theories, including the concept of middle management, to the clubs they ran.
“The management of footballers,” the sports historian Neil Carter writes, “has largely mirrored attitudes towards the handling of young, working-class men in general.” The manager’s position grew to be more public and specialized in part because sports teams turned out not to be just like factories.
Club directors at the turn of the 20th century also discovered the utility of employing a single, expendable figure who could serve as the focus of fan and journalistic ire. Football management has always been about labor politics.
What English club directors suspected in the 1890s remains true today: The football manager is an extremely useful outlet for popular anger. Think of every bad boss you’ve encountered. Few things grate like a manager whose every choice needily insists they’re one of the gang (see: Office, The).
The polar opposite of desperately insisting on managerial remove is no better. Worst of all is a boss who waffles between these extremes. Football offers versions of all of these types. Since fans don’t actually know them, these managers’ traits are reduced to aesthetic shorthand, archetypes like the aging man who still dresses like he’s a player, the ego hiding behind octuple Windsor tie knots, or the ever-changing indecisive leader.
English football history is therefore filled with defining fashion gaffes. Eleven years later, manager Steve McClaren is still remembered for taking refuge under an umbrella while his England charges got soaked and failed to qualify for the European Football Championship. The derisive “Wally with the Brolly” appellation follows him. Managers now studiously avoid umbrellas. The foreignness of McClaren’s successor, the Italian Fabio Capello, was often emphasized through mentions of his love for sports jackets and “designer specs.” Zerorh+ glasses, his manufacturer of choice, even tried to break into the English market shortly after his appointment.
While the English use clothing to tear down their own managers as ineffectual and implicitly effete, they laud the sartorial choices of their foreign counterparts. Germany manager Joachim Löw, who won the 2014 World Cup, is known for his lucky blue sweater. The man may have a bowl cut, but the sweater is taken as a fashionable sign of consistency.
He’s a man with a plan. Hervé Renard, who managed Morocco at this World Cup and previously won African championships with Zambia and Côte d’Ivoire, cannot be named without also mentioning his crisp white dress shirts. Fashion, this refrain insists, is something other countries’ managers get right. The same, come to think of it, can be said of football.
Southgate’s vest occupies the elusive sweet spot between embarrassing England managers of old and the hyper-stylized other. As a nod to the history of tailoring, it is almost parodically English. Never mind that it’s mass-produced in Cambodia. (Traditionalism also entails the team suit being repeatedly used as a racially coded cudgel against tattooed black players.) The superfluousness of the vest is also an important part of its appeal.
It is the least essential part of a three-piece ensemble that is technically the team’s uniform. It’s a layering item in 80-degree temperatures; Southgate could take it off at any time in the name of comfort or just to mix things up. His sticking with the vest has become a convenient metaphor for being the rare England manager to stick with a plan.
Winning obviously helps broaden the range of acceptable managerial styles. Had England lost to Panama and Tunisia in its opening World Cup matches, one imagines that a series of not-inaccurate jibes about firing the valet would have ensured. In America, Bill Belichick can cut off his sleeves like a Cro-Magnon and Pat Riley can dress like it’s 1997 forever because they’ve won multiple titles. When their disciples have attempted to replicate these looks, they’ve been justifiably mocked as kids playing dress up in their father’s clothes. American sports, which regulate coaching fashions through a combination of rules and norms, offer fewer opportunities for mockery.
The ultimate triumph of Gareth Southgate’s now-iconic blue waistcoat, though, may be that it’s impervious to football’s many forms of managerial mockery. The costume-y silliness of wearing a waistcoat in 2018 undercuts the pretensions that foiled Southgate’s predecessors.
Crucially, Southgate appears to understand as much. “I thought why not wear the waistcoat and tie and have a bit of fun,” he told the BBC. A former player who only got the England job after his predecessor was fired following a tabloid sting in which he ordered a pint of white wine and blabbed about his capacity for questionable deals, Southgate seems comfortable dressing as a doofy substitute teacher instead of protesting too much about his authority.
In a globalized sport that has a habit of magnifying labor tensions and where everything now seems to have a memetic afterlife, the only way to be taken seriously is by dressing like you’re in on the joke.