With several NFL teams recently wearing throwback uniforms, there’s been lots of chatter about the retro jerseys, helmets, and pants. But another uni element has gone largely overlooked: the stockings.
Flip through old yearbooks or turn on ESPN Classic and you’ll see that until about 1990, most teams had cool stripe patterns on their upper stockings: green, gold, and white stripes for the Packers, blue and yellow for the Rams, blue and silver for the Lions, and so on. Today these stripes have largely been replaced by boring blocks of solid color, with only a handful of clubs—most notably the Bears and Chiefs—still honoring the league’s once-dynamic upper-stocking tradition. The Niners, Patriots, and Saints all revived their stocking stripes in their recent throwback unis, but the Cowboys—apparently thinking nobody would notice, or else just being lazy—didn’t bother resuscitating their old blue/white stripe pattern. Instead they wore their contemporary stockings, which are solid blue at the calf. That sound you just heard was Jerry Jones being crossed off Uni Watch’s Christmas card list.
The key date in NFL hosiery history is 1945, when league commissioner Elmer Layden decided that football players had unsightly legs—yes, really—and enacted a rule requiring long stockings. (The NCAA has never shared this concern, so most college players continue to play bare-legged.) As currently worded, the rule stipulates that “the exterior stocking must be a one-piece unit, solid white from the top of the shoe to the midpoint of the lower leg, with approved team color or colors from that midpoint to the top of the stocking.”
But these guidelines are routinely flouted. For starters, many players now eschew the one-sock look, instead wearing white tube socks over solid-color leggings. And the tube socks, which define the white-to-color border, almost never fall at mid-shin—some players pull them up high to calf-level, covering most of the colored legging, while others let them slouch low around the ankles, exposing lots of color. The resulting carnival of white/color ratios on a given team makes hosiery the least uniform of uniform elements. Look closely and you’ll see that the only guys who take a consistent hosiery approach are the ones who have stripes not just on their stockings but also on their jerseys: the referees.