Uniforms have come a long way from wool jerseys, knee-high socks and leather helmets.
As preparations for Super Bowl 50 wind down — Roman numerals optional these days — the players will be wearing uniforms that are a far cry from what their predecessors wore in the earliest days of the game.
Take the Carolina Panthers, who won a wholly unscientific poll in which fans voted their uniforms the greatest in NFL history, as an example. The uniform looks comfortable, has great style and can protect players, with such technology as impact-indicator chin straps that can help determine the possibility of a head injury. None of this holds true for anything worn in late 19th-century football.
Long before helmets, shoulder pads, mouth guards and cleats became standard on the field, players wore uniforms that made them look almost as though they were better equipped for a day at sea than a game on grass.
This late-19th century portrait shows what the Yale University football team wore to their games. The stocking caps on their heads were just for the photo, however, and were not actually used in play.
Given that football was a contact sport right from its inception, uniforms were made for durability out of heavier materials like wool.
Teams may have coordinated on colors, but they didn’t exactly wear every color under the rainbow. Most uniforms were some shade of black, brown, navy or other dark colors.
During the earliest days of the sport, helmets weren’t a required or even common part of the uniform. The first helmets to enter the game were made of soft leather. They helped cushion hits, though they didn’t offer much protection to reduce the chance of injury.
Hard leather helmets eventually replaced the old soft leather staples of the game in the 1930s. This formal photo of the New York Giants football team in 1937 shows them all in their team uniforms.
In 1943, the NFL instituted a rule requiring all players to wear helmets in play.
Developed and patented in the late 1930s, the plastic helmet afforded more protection than their leather counterparts in games. However, because they weren’t universally adopted, players could also use them to harm players not equipped with them. Furthermore, due to a fault in the plastic mix in helmet production ahead of the 1948 season, helmets would frequently shatter upon collision.
Therefore, in 1948, the National Football League banned their use.
Not all progress in the push for a safer football helmet went in the right direction. This leather helmet modeled by New York Giants player Hinkey Haines was meant to offer full facial protection to players.
The same year that plastic head protection was banned also saw their first year a team’s emblem was affixed to the helmet.
Los Angeles Rams halfback Fred Gehrke painted horns on his helmet, a move later adopted by the organization. In this photo, Rams quarterback Norman Van Brocklin sports the team helmet as worn in 1951.
In the 1950s, plastic helmets were reintroduced after the manufacturing process was refined to produce more reliable gear. Internal padding was also added to help absorb shock.
In 1956, the Cleveland Browns also added a something no helmet had previously before seen: a radio. The development was met with concern by league officials, who initially banned their use.
The 1960s saw team uniforms employ a much broader range of color than had been used before. The San Diego Chargers powder blue uniform, for example, was first created in 1960 and used until 1973, occasionally appearing in modern games a fan favorite throwback, such as this game in 2010 against the San Francisco 49ers.
In 1962, all NFL players started wearing face masks on their helmets as a standard part of their uniforms.
Just as the 1960s saw the development of eye-catching uniforms, the 1970s and 1980s brought some of the greatest eyesores in NFL history, such as this orange atrocity from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Helmet design improved as well, with the addition of full face masks and internal air bladders to further absorb impacts.
During the 1980s and 1990s, plastic helmets were replaced with polycarbonate head protection instead. Plastic visors were also introduced for the first time as eye protection.
While teams frequently tweak and redesign their uniforms, throwback jerseys still make an appearance throughout the season schedule, allowing teams to celebrate their tradition while continuing to improve on their uniforms.