PRESS RELEASE: Designed in conjunction with NFL Properties, Nike and the Chicago Bears today unveil a new uniform system that reflects the glorious past of the franchise, its aggressive future, and the strength of the bear. The new look we unveil today maintains many ideas from the former uniform, but incorporates claw marks and the deadly serious eyes of the bear, while saluting the strength of Chicago and its fans.
Admit it, if you saw a press release like the above hypothetical, announcing a new Bears uniform, you would feel sick to your stomach. The Chicago Bears uniform doesn’t need much explaining. You don’t need to be told what it means. Save for the occasional small tweak, Bears fans know what they’re going to get: navy blue, burnt orange, and white. Three stripes on the arm, rounded numbers, and the iconic wishbone C on the helmet.
NFL fans in Jacksonville, Miami, and Minnesota, however, were recently fed corporate babble about the meaning of their team’s new uniform. Miami was a sleek evolution of its look, Minnesota incorporated parts of a Viking ship, and Jacksonville honored the city’s military heritage.
That’s all well and good, but Chicago’s uniforms are the heritage. Every time a Chicago team steps out onto the field, it’s honoring the city’s past and tradition. We haven’t been instructed as to the meaning of our teams’ new uniforms because, well, there haven’t been any.
Since late in the 1990 season when the White Sox went to silver and black, Chicago teams have generally looked the same. If we’re counting partial redesigns when the Cubs went to their current road look, Chicago teams haven’t made any significant changes since 1997.
Yep, in an era of Oregon and money-grab redesigns, Chicago’s look has stayed remarkably consistent. All five teams have added alternates and made very slight changes to accommodate new cuts and fabrics, but a 1998 team photo would look quite like one from today.
That’s not true for other big cities with multiple teams. Philadelphia’s 76ers and Eagles have gone through big changes like Miami’s Dolphins and Marlins, in Los Angeles the Kings, Ducks and Angels have gone through redesigns, and even traditional teams like the Mets and Knicks have added black and then rid themselves of it. Boston’s Patriots (2000) and Bruins (2007) have also undergone makeovers.
“Part of it is Chicago is one of the old-school sports cities, so its franchises have deep heritages,” said Paul Lukas, the author of the Uni Watch blog and uniform columnist for ESPN. “For the most part, the teams that we see changing a lot, at the professional level, the teams change a lot are the newer teams, the teams that don’t have the deep roots and are sort of more prone to changing with the whims of retailing.”
Classic until they weren’t
What’s interesting is that until the 1990s, Chicago’s baseball teams were prone to frequent changes.
While their home look hasn’t changed much since 1958, the Cubs have run through multiple away looks. The 1960s still featured the classic, iconic uniforms we picture Ernie Banks wearing, the awful powder blues with white pinstripes of the 1970s, and then the blue jersey-over-white striped pants of the 1980s. In 1990, the Cubs went back to a gray road look, and by 1997 they had the now-familiar togs.
That evolution is nothing compared to the White Sox.
They’ve been a primarily red team, a primarily blue team, there were shorts and collars at one point, and then the ’80s happened. When they unveiled their new uniforms in 1990, it was a welcome relief.
That stability is welcomed by Lukas, who doesn’t see the need for Chicago to change.
“Why? I don’t know that stability or change is in and of itself a good thing,” Lukas said. “I think uniforms either work or they don’t.”
Chicago’s uniforms clearly work. Any list of best the uniforms in sports has to include the Blackhawks. Lukas says the Bears’ are probably his top NFL uniform, the Bulls’ togs have carried over well from Michael and Scottie to Derrick and the ACLs, and the Cubs and White Sox wear traditional garb that fits in well with their long histories.
Changing the way the Jaguars or even the Dolphins or Vikings have wouldn’t work for our teams. The Bears, for example, have a gritty feel that wouldn’t mesh with a souped-up uniform “system” like what the Jaguars will wear in 2013.
“Some teams you can imagine doing that and some you can’t. I just don’t see the Bears doing that. They’re such a traditional franchise,” Lukas said. “There’s something sort of old-school, blood and guts, outdoors in the tough Chicago fall and winter. Chicago’s a tough grind-it-out, production, blue-collar factory city. It all sort of fits.”
A change is gonna come?
The uniforms for all five Chicago teams do fit, but there could be some change on the way.
Earlier this spring it emerged that the Cubs are looking into changing their logo and maybe their road uniforms. Under Theo Epstein, the Cubs are trying to change the culture of the franchise, and part of that could be the uniforms.
Knowing that, Lukas could see changes coming on the North Side that go beyond just a new scoreboard.
“I can see that there’s a sense of a new era, a new chapter in Cubs history and maybe you provide a new uniform to go along with that,” Lukas said. “I can maybe see that. I frankly would be disappointed by that because I really, really like the Cubs uniforms, but I can see the rationale for that.”
Across town, the White Sox have begun chiseling away at their almost-classic look. Two years ago the White Sox replaced the Sox patch on the road uniforms with their main logo. Pretty quietly this season they altered the striping on their gray pants, exchanging the matching thick black and white stripes for one narrow black one. They also seem to fit the profile of a franchise headed for a major change: a team with struggling attendance in need of a jolt.
Lukas also speculated that the Bulls could change, albeit because the NBA’s a more experimental and forward-thinking league with its uniforms.
But before those changes come, Chicago’s uniforms are in a remarkable period of stability; a period of contemporary classics.
“I think it’s a really good-looking city, uniform-wise,” Lukas said “You guys have got it going on. You guys have basically got no teams that look bad, and several teams that look excellent, by my standards anyway.”
Let’s hope it stays that way for another 20 years.