What does subliminal mean?

I love a good pattern, but you know what I love more? A good, subliminal pattern. 

Don’t get me wrong, there’s something exciting about a bold, brash design (think any of RB Leipzig’s kits this season), but give me something well executed and more subtle every day of the week.

For today’s Collectors Club Encyclopedia I’m going to clarify exactly what I mean by the word “subliminal”, whilst also touching on some related terms. Let’s jump straight in.


What does subliminal mean?

Subliminal is an adjective which describes something that is not completely recognisable at first glance, but which still has some sort of influence. There are many uses of the word, but the most well-known is in the area of advertising. Subliminal advertising is a powerful tool in the hands of any advertiser, seeking to send a message without looking they are sending a message in the first place.

If this all sounds a bit psychological, that’s because it is. The most effective subliminal messages are the ones which are imperceivable to the conscious mind, but if you were to see them repeatedly you’d have one of those lightbulb moments where you realise what was going on all along.

What is a subliminal pattern?

Before this piece morphs into a full-blown psychology lesson though, what does this have to do with football shirts? A number of shirts, both historically and in the modern game, have made use of some sort of subliminal pattern.

A subliminal pattern on a football shirt is, as I’m sure you can deduce by now, any sort of pattern which is largely or completely unseen at first glance on the kit. Although these patterns can sometimes contain ‘messages’ (think a shirt which includes the names of a club’s season ticket holders), subliminal patterns of shirts are typically not loaded with the kind of psychology a subliminal advert might contain.

In the area of shirts we’re dealing mostly with aesthetics only; those patterns which only appear as the light bounces off the surface of a kit at a certain angle, or when you get up close and personal with a shirt. Strictly speaking these patterns might not be ‘subliminal’ by the dictionary definition, but like a lot of things in shirts the word has been adopted to cover a broader spectrum.

How do you create a subliminal pattern?

What are some of the techniques used to create subliminal patterns on football shirts? There’s a wide range of methods, with a popular modern approach being the use of prints.

A subliminal pattern can be applied as a subtle print, in such a way that it can be ‘hidden’ from afar. Often patterns are imperceivable in promotional photography for example, but when you get a shirt in your hands you can appreciate what the designers were trying to do.

Another popular, and more historical, technique is the use of jacquard fabric to create patterns. Jacquard fabric allows for the possibility of complex patterns to be woven directly into the body of the shirt itself, making it an effective direction to go down when wanting to create a subliminal pattern (we’ll talk more about jacquard and other fabric types and techniques in a future blog).

One final example is the use of an embossed pattern. Embossing can be achieved in different ways, but the end result is a pattern which is ever so slightly raised against the surface of a shirt. Southampton’s current third shirt from hummel is a contemporary example, where a pattern of stadium outlines has been created as an embossed design on the body.

What does tonal mean?

You might see a subliminal pattern described as a tonal pattern. A tonal pattern on a shirt simply means a pattern which is ever so slightly lighter or darker than the base of the kit.

To use a popular example, many blackout kits make use of tonal crests, sponsors etc. to achieve the blackout aesthetic, whilst still keeping the necessary details present on the shirt. You could describe these details as subliminal though, given their stealthy appearance.

Phil Delves

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