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Basic black, basic instinct

What you wear can and does affect the way you are perceived. That’s obvious. But apparently the psychological ramifications of clothing extend all the way to the world of sports.

Back in 1988, Mark Frank and Tom Gilovich of Cornell University published an academic paper entitled “The Dark Side of Self- and Social Perception: Black Uniforms and Aggression in Professional Sports” (in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54:1). Through a battery of experiments and some historical analysis, the researchers demonstrated that black athletic uniforms are linked with aggression. Their techniques and findings:

But 1988 was a long time ago, well before the boom in hockey in the United States, which now holds the majority of pro teams playing Canada’s national game, and before the explosion in “licensed apparel,” the rag-trade term for clothing bearing the logos of pro sports teams. Were the NHL teams that underwent a uniform change or came into being after the publication of the Cornell paper aware of the research? Were uniform designs modified as a result? And does dark-coloured licensed apparel outsell light-coloured?

Trying to answer these questions is about as easy as getting your hands on one of the Nixon tapes. NHL “clubs” have very little interest in discussing the design of their uniforms. (Are fashion and academic research too twee for roughneck hockey clubs?) Of the nine NHL teams with new uniform designs since 1988 (not all of which have black uniforms), only four bothered to respond to repeated inquiries.

The Anaheim Mighty Ducks (sorry, “Mighty Ducks of Anaheim”) initially advanced the preposterous claim that Disney chair Michael Eisner personally designed the team’s uniforms, a smart-looking, modern combo of teal, white, and black. (One imagines a smoking-jacketed Eisner aboard his private plane, brandy snifter in one hand and charcoal in the other, whiling away the hours doodling uniform designs featuring the team’s ridiculous logo of a duck-shaped faceguard.) When pressed, Anaheim officials later confessed that fully 100 members of Disney’s creative-services department held an internal competition for the uniform design, with Eisner selecting the winner. The designers knew nothing of the Cornell study.

Ditto for the Calgary Flames, where executive VP Jared Paisley advises that black trim was used merely “to better show up on television screens” and make “numbers and names... show up better.” The Dallas Stars didn’t know who designed their jerseys, which were altered only slightly when the team moved from Minnesota in 1993.

Over at the San Jose Sharks – whose logo of a shark biting through a hockey stick really kicked off the craze for licensed NHL apparel, selling so many “Pacific teal” jerseys that for a while the team had to stockpile teal cloth to ensure a reliable supply – executive VP of development Matt Levine recounts that “the colour-selection process was a combination of marketing research into colour combinations and [art] direction here. We honed in on a blue to deliver ‘Sharks,’ because it made sense.... We got the black because we wanted to develop a black shark.” Also, another Sharks executive believed that black “made players appear larger,” Levine admits.

The team knew nothing of the Cornell research, and indeed Levine says “we feel there’s a chicken-and-egg issue here as to whether or not colours make the players [objectively] more physical, or whether... black makes players appear more intimidating.” Tom Gilovich of Cornell responds: “That’s actually quite an intelligent statement. That’s certainly the question we had too. I mean, which way does it go?” Or, to complicate matters further, teams may simply recruit naturally aggressive players and also clothe them in black. The research did not examine all those variables.

According to Ed O’Hara, president of Sean Michael Edwards Design Inc. – a New York consultancy that has worked on many jock outfits – “In today’s view of uniform design and colours and stuff, I think aggressiveness is probably the last thing they they’re considering – when they talk to me, anyway.” Team owners “want to sell product. If black is fashionable, they’ll go with it. But it’s more about the fashion aspect than whether it’s aggressive on ice.” Finally, a representative from Starter Corp., a principal maker of licensed apparel, notes that what sells is what a fan’s home team wears, colour be damned.

First published 1996 ¶ Updated 2001.11.02, 2009.07.30

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