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How “soccer girl” became the indisputably coolest look

The women’s World Cup means all eyes are on the players right now, but their aesthetic has been enviable for a long time.

A player for the US women’s soccer team holds out her arms and runs in celebration of scooting a goal.
Mallory Pugh after scoring the 12th goal in the US’ first 2019 World Cup game.
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

As you may know, the women’s World Cup started this week, and the US team won their first game in the group stage of the tournament by a full 13 goals.

What you may not know is why you find the whole thing so irresistible. Might I suggest that you are — in addition to a fan of the sport and a little patriotic even though you try not to be nationalistic — in awe of the mystique of the players themselves and the ease with which they comport and dress themselves?

Part of that is their unfathomable talent, which we will never get used to, as it is not of this Earth. And part of it is the soccer girl aesthetic — arguably the best personal style aesthetic of them all.

This aesthetic is tricky to define but can be worn by soccer players and non-soccer players alike. It’s more about having a rotation of summer-y sport staples and a specific attitude than it is about having a good penalty shot. For example, Rihanna is a soccer girl. Lana Del Rey is a soccer girl. Sporty Spice was, I think we can all agree, specifically soccer-girl sporty — she grew up in Liverpool. Bella Hadid has been spotted in Off-White’s Umbro collaboration, and is tentatively a soccer girl.

“Who’s that youth soccer player in the groovy tie-dye T-shirt clutching an extra-large glass of rosé?” Eliza Brooke wrote for Racked in summer 2017, way ahead of me when it comes to putting the soccer girl into print. “It’s me, trying to reclaim the boundless nothingness of school vacations while combating New York’s swamp weather in baggy athletic shorts, Adidas sneakers, and breathable cotton basics.” Does that not sound ideal?

Whether the soccer look is “good” or “popular” is not up for debate here. This is merely an explanation of how the soccer girl got so cool, and why she’ll be cool forever.

What are the key components of the soccer girl aesthetic?

First, we should define the soccer girl look (and I should say that I’m only saying “soccer girl” instead of “soccer woman” because that’s already the accepted nomenclature, born, perhaps, out of our youthful reverence for the soccer girls). I suspect that most of us can kind of visualize the soccer girl, but might struggle to say anything more useful than “sports clothes.”

Every summer from sixth grade to college I was literally a soccer girl because I was playing soccer. That involved shin guards and cleats and things that don’t really work as everyday wear. But last year I wanted my summer aesthetic to be “Lorde,” which is to say “highbrow soccer girl.” (Lorde does not play soccer. As I said, all girls who play soccer are soccer girls, but not all soccer girls play soccer.)

Lorde — whose Adidas Superstars are actually basketball shoes — commits to the soccer girl aesthetic mainly by wearing black sports bras as shirts, possibly in tribute to the most famous black sports bra of all time. She has also made custom Melodrama warm-up suits for her background singers, which are very soccer.

Soccer girl Lorde at the iHeartRADIO MuchMusic Video Awards in Canada in 2017.
Soccer girl Lorde at the iHeartRADIO MuchMusic Video Awards in Canada in 2017.

As it turns out, there is a WikiHow titled “How to Dress Like a Soccer Player (Girls).” This is a remarkable web page. “While you’re not playing in games, you may want the world to recognize you as a soccer player,” it begins. The recommendations to wear “soccer shorts” and “sports shirts” are insultingly obvious, but the guide itself is not entirely useless.

“Wear casual hairstyles,” it suggests. “You can start pulling your hair into loose ponytails, messy buns, or braids. To keep stray hairs or bangs back from your face, wear a thin headband made from pre-wrap.” I can’t believe I’d forgotten about pre-wrap. The ultimate test of a soccer girl is whether she knows how long a piece of pre-wrap — stretchy foam ribbon designed to go underneath a sports bandage — to tear off the roll in order to have a just-right headband (not loose enough to fall off when she runs, not tight enough to leave an upsetting divet and cut off blood flow). Pre-wrap is cheap and practical, like many of the elements of the soccer girl look.

The guide also suggests strengthening your calf muscles, if you would like to seem like you play soccer. “Having strong calf muscles indicates that you are serious about soccer,” even if merely as an aesthetic. Interesting advice, and you can take it if you want, but I have to say I think body modification is kind of overkill.

I would agree with my former coworker Eliza that tie-dye is a key component, particularly this year, with everyone rolling around in that ’90s summer camp nostalgia. (The cheap soccer socks at Dollar General were also always tie-dye.) Boxy tees, naturally. Only a specific type of jogger works because you have to be able to take them off over your cleats — tear-away pants are, I believe, more essentially soccer girl than would be a tapered sweat. Cowl-necked sweatshirts are also very soccer girl, as are muscle tanks that resemble scrimmage pinnies.

As for soccer shoes: Adidas’ signature indoor soccer shoe the Samba has been called “Europe’s Air Jordan.” Of course, cute boys notoriously love Sambas, but girls look incredible in them too. For example, Kristen Stewart. Last summer, Adidas released a bunch of new colors for the original unisex Samba, as well as a new slightly platformed women’s style called the Sambarose.

Adidas’ Adilette slide can also be part of the soccer girl look, though it was not specifically popularized by soccer girls. It was introduced in 1963 as an all-sports locker room shoe, and avoided any real pop culture significance beyond that until it popped up in the West Coast rap scene in the ’90s, then Odd Future videos, then on Odd Future fans (including Miley Cyrus), then on Karlie Kloss in a 2013 photo shoot for Interview magazine.

Soccer player Mia Hamm lying on her back on the field before a game and stretching one leg up.
Mia Hamm at the 2004 Olympics in a classic soccer girl look. Note the ponytail!
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Most important: the soccer girl posture. The soccer girl look is very hands-on-hips. But also lying on the ground with a leg in the air! There’s a subtle brag inherent in sprawling out harmlessly — tummy out, or t-shirt so oversized as to be a nightie — all the while knowing you could crack a walnut between your calf and hamstring. Soccer girls stand like they know which angles are bad for their knees and spines. They have an enviably loose relationship to their arms and mouths. Have you ever seen a soccer girl drink out of a wide-mouthed Gatorade bottle? She’s just guessing! The main reason I ever wanted to be a soccer girl was because I envied the confidence it takes to just kind of flop your body around.

Related: There is also strong sleepover energy to the soccer girl look. It very much implies female camaraderie and dis-implies male gaze.

When did the soccer girl become cool?

The entire 2005 documentary Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team is available on YouTube. It’s very helpful in providing examples of the soccer girl look.

It also makes it obvious how the soccer girl entered American popular culture. The stars of that national team, including Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, and Briana Scurry, boycotted training for the 1996 Olympics to protest pervasive sexism and pay inequality in the US Soccer Federation — an extremely risky and brave show of solidarity by a group of athletes who were still fighting an uphill battle to be taken seriously. (Despite winning the inaugural women’s World Cup in 1991.) If you watch any footage of them at the World Cup in 1999, please be prepared to weep. They are absolutely talented beyond words and it’s no surprise that the next several years of teen movies were all about cool girl soccer players.

There was Julia Stiles’ acerbic Kat Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You in 1999, then the rule-breaking best friends played by Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham in 2002. Blake Lively as cool girl soccer player Bridget Vreeland in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in 2005 (in Soffe shorts, naturally), then Amanda Bynes as cool girl soccer player Viola Hastings in She’s the Man in 2006.

There is now a sad lack of soccer girl movies, but soccer girls are represented in other art forms. Drake and Future played soccer with a bunch of cool soccer girls in 2016 in the video for “Used to This.” Sarah DeLappe’s play The Wolves is set entirely at a high school girls’ soccer practice and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017. The anarchic Spanish girl band Hinds shot the video for their 2018 single “New For You” while also playing soccer. Soccer Mommy — who is cool — is named after soccer.

Soccer girls are extra cool because the fashion industry doesn’t want them

While soccer girls have always been cool, they have not usually been fashion. High fashion loves men’s soccer. Streetwear brands also love men’s soccer.

Versace and Burberry have made soccer-inspired menswear — mostly scarves and jerseys. Gosha Rubchinskiy and Koché have both made soccer clothes, the latter debuting inside of the Strand bookstore in Manhattan in December 2017. All kinds of cool guys have embraced the soccer aesthetic in the last couple of years, including New York-based Letter Racer NY, London-based skateboarding brand Palace, and Tokyo-based streetwear maker SOPH. The Village Soccer Shop in New York stocks artsy soccer brands like MIDFLD alongside official FIFA jerseys, but has no women’s section.

Young women playing soccer.
Blake Lively at soccer camp in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
Warner Bros.

Season — a soccer, fashion, and fandom magazine based in London — ran its first issue in 2016. Editor Felicia Pennant explained that she had tried to write her thesis about the history of soccer and fashion and dug through the entire Condé Nast archive at the British Library before noticing “there were no girls in any of it; there was no female perspective, or voice.”

Even the biggest sportswear companies in the world have been apathetic toward the soccer girl until quite recently. Umbro — the most soccer-y of all the soccer brands — hired goalie Ashlyn Harris as its first-ever female global ambassador only two years ago. This year marks the first World Cup for which Nike designed uniforms specifically for the women’s teams, rather than providing them with regurgitations of whatever the men wore the year before.

Speaking to the New York Times, Nike’s senior apparel product manager for global football Cassie Looker described the women’s World Cup uniform design process, saying, “They are shaped differently than the standard body type. They generate most of their power from the lower body.” While the men like tight uniforms (“it makes them feel more powerful, like superheroes”), women want to be comfortable, look “professional,” and have “zero distractions.” This is why women’s soccer jerseys are looser and longer on the upper arm, with a lower crew neck that can fit over a ponytail.

The soccer girl is — because she is so cool — making some progress fashion-wise. Goal Five, a soccer apparel brand named after the UN’s fifth sustainable development goal (“Achieve equality and empower all women and girls”) launched in 2017, as did Girls Do Succeed, a sportswear brand and zine exploring “sports as art.” Last year, Nike and Off-White released a unisex capsule collection called “Football, Mon Amour.” This year, it hired four female designers — including Marine Serre and Ambush’s Yoon — to make soccer-inspired bodysuits and jersey dresses. Alexander Wang’s new Adidas collab is very soccer girl.

Romance FC — a collection of female artists and musicians who formed a soccer club after meeting each other in London’s Boiler Room nightclub scene — designed their own line of jerseys for Nike last year in gradients inspired by “sunset and chemtrails.” Stylist and Romance FC founder Trisha Lewis told The Fader, “One of my main things was to bring the fun back into football kits. As they’ve evolved over the past ten years, everything’s been stripped back — it’s all about the technical element of jerseys now, making them dry quicker, etc. So, we started referencing old ’80s and ’90s football kits: great patterns, geometric shapes, and bold colors.”

Parts of the soccer girl look tie into ’90s nostalgia, but the soccer girl herself is timeless

The ’90s revival trend also explains the recent comeback of Umbro’s classic checkered shorts, including the unisex Vetements and Umbro collaboration released last year. But I don’t think the soccer girl look is dependent on ’90s nostalgia. Fashion has been trending toward gender neutrality for quite some time, and soccer clothes already lend themselves to that.

Last week, US soccer stars Meghan Klingenberg, Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press, and Tobin Heath announced the launch of their gender-neutral lifestyle brand Re-Inc, which is starting with two products that are sold along one size chart (XXS to XXL). They are, unfortunately, beige t-shirts, but that doesn’t mean I did not preorder one. They say “liberté, égalité, défendez” in blood red and navy, which is kind of goth.

Women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe at a press conference.
Megan Rapinoe, extremely cool!
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Of course, the main reason the soccer girl aesthetic is so cool now is the same reason it was so cool 20 years ago: On International Women’s Day this March, 28 players signed a class-action lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation alleging institutionalized gender discrimination. It is so very dumb that we are still talking about how underpaid the best soccer players in the world are — they wrote in this complaint that they make 38 percent of what the men’s team does, despite the fact that the men’s team doesn’t even win — but it’s still exhilarating to watch people have each other’s backs. Who would not want to dress up like these women? The lawsuit came out of a 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed by Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Megan Rapinoe, absolutely the coolest athlete of our time (her hair is pink right now), at, once again, great personal risk. But they look so relaxed while they do it!

Rapinoe also told Yahoo Sports earlier this year that she considers herself a “walking protest” of the Trump administration’s LGBTQ+ policy agenda, explaining, “I feel like it’s kind of defiance in and of itself to just be who I am and wear the jersey, and represent [the United States]. Because I’m talented as I am, I get to be here, you don’t get to tell me if I can be here or not.” Additionally, she was the first white athlete to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, saying, “I’ll probably never put my hand over my heart. I’ll probably never sing the national anthem again.” True to her word, she did not sing it at the US’ first World Cup game against Thailand on Tuesday. It was casual and cool: a real soccer girl look.

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