Once upon a time I worked for Sears Holdings Corporation, the entity that owned Sears department stores, Kmart stores, and the Kenmore, Craftsman, and Die Hard brands. For a good chunk of the 20th century, Sears was basically Amazon, featuring both an enormous brick-and-mortar retail operation and a robust catalogue business. They would proudly refer to themselves as the World’s Largest Retailer, and for much of their existence, that was true.
Sears died a common corporate death, out-innovated by internet giants like Amazon, and a victim of the all-too-common leveraged corporate raider scheme, when they were purchased by hedge fund billionaire Eddie Lampert, who saw value in their real estate portfolio, just before the big real estate crash. It went poorly.
For all of Sears’ issues, kids of the 80s and 90s almost all have fond memories of the Sears Wishbook (and to be fair, its JCPenney equivalent). The Christmas catalogue was a masterclass in creating desires in children for the latest action figures, dolls, video games, electronics, and (fortunately for us) sports-related fashion. Sears recently auctioned off much of what remains from their former headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and I managed to acquire Wishbooks from 1987-1993 or so. This was done partially for nostalgic reasons, partially for research purposes, and partially because these things actually fetch a pretty penny on eBay. But mostly, I thought it might be fun to see just how much sports fashion has changed, especially from the 80s to the 90s, because man, it was wild.
The Conservative, Mustachioed 1987
We begin with big blocks of basic color and collars.
Who needs custom logos when you can just use stars and some kind of comics-y baseball version of your favorite teams’ name? It’s basic, it’s bright, the collar makes it formal, and man is it wholesome. But the 80s could also get wild! Can you imagine grown men wearing, well, literally any of this?
Believe it or not, there was a time when Snoopy was almost as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, and the NFL was all about hitching a ride on the popularity of Snoopy’s “Joe Cool” iteration, seen here. The difference between regular Snoopy and Joe Cool is literally the sunglasses.
But also, the night shirts! Can you even imagine? Just a bunch of pants-less dudes relaxing on the couch with the game on. 1987 - Free and easy.
1988: Mesh debuts, Snoopy Dominance Continues
Here at Acme Packing Company, we are fans of “mesh” route concepts, which are essentially crossing patterns where one receiver serves as a pick for the other. You will here various APC members say “run mesh until you can’t” across all of our podcasts. Perhaps this should be our shirt.
The mesh cover up on the Giants’ jersey is just getting started, and will dominate the remainder of the 80s, but we’re still hanging on to Snoopy as well:
But nothing defined 1988 more than just a bunch of guys hanging out. Wearing your multi-sport block sweatshirts. Bears man is extra intense, like he knows what’s coming in a few years. The glory days? They’re about to end.
Also worth noting how little the Packers factor into any of this. Pre-Favre, they really were not on national radars. The 49ers, Bears, Giants, and Washingtons dominate pictures in the Wishbook. It really was a different time.
1989: The Bears’ Last Stand
In 1988, the Bears and 49ers faced each other in the NFC Championship Game, and this catalogue is filled with Bears gear, released in the middle of their disappointing 1989 follow-up which saw them go 6-10.
We still have some Mesh, but more than anything, in the basketball section we get our first glimpse of the madness the 90s will bring.
1990 and 1991: Everything is yelling at you
While we have some 80s carryovers featuring old-timey sports stuff and acid-wash jeans:
We also get our first glimpse of the aggro 90s:
But most importantly, we get one of the great advancements in the history of fashion. That’s right, it’s
Most of you know what Zubaz are, as the ironic nostalgia factor is off the charts with them, but if you’re just learning, know that for a brief period of time, zebra-striped parachute pants were all the rage.
1992: Zubaz, and the convergence of other sports.
In the ‘92 catalogue there is as much hockey as any other sport, which is odd to think about now. Hockey was a regular feature on ESPN, the LA Kings were at the height of their popularity due to Wayne Gretzky, and the NHL and NHLPA video games were just ramping up.
Zubaz are still going strong, and expanding into a welcoming NBA.
While the NFL sees an important advance in Zuba technology: the Zubaz sweats.
While college ball joins the in-your-face aggro party.
And with that, we’ll take a small time jump to 1997, partially because I have a small gap in my catalogues.
1997: The Packers Arrive
One year after the Packers’ first Super Bowl, a lot of these burgeoning trends have reached their apex. There’s Starter, a brand that would define much of the 90s:
And there are plenty of actual jerseys in the Wishbook as they start to take off. But most importantly, there is the greatest catalog page I’ve ever seen, even besting the night shirts from earlier. It is, I think, responsible for defining the look of Green Bay natives for at least a decade. Maybe two.
You’ve got Zubaz, you’ve got Texas Tuxedos, and you have oversized sweatshirts with HUGE writing. The Chiefs jacket adds some additional flair to what I think of as a masterpiece.
Denim on top, Zubaz down low. You walk into the Kimberly Clark HR office wearing this in 1997 and you’ve got yourself a job.
I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane, and I hope some of these make a comeback. I’m going to go find myself a reasonably priced nightshirt right now.