The rugby jersey — that heavyweight cotton shirt with its long sleeves, reinforced seams, and hard-wearing collar — carries with it an odd and somewhat contradictory set of connotations. It’s a garment born from the game of the same name but one that is no longer worn by players of the sport (not outside of the schoolyard, anyway). The game of rugby has a reputation for being a muddy and violent affair, while the eponymous shirt has come to be associated with loftier, more refined circumstances. And then there’s the fact that the origins of rugby are quintessentially British, while the rugby shirt has become a hallmark of a certain kind of American aesthetic.
You can even see this muddled state of affairs reflected in the rather motley assortment of people famed for donning the game of rugby’s most famous bit of gear: David Hockney, Mick Jagger, James May, David Beckham, and Chevy Chase in that one, much-circulated photo. Apart from fame and their favourite garment, you wonder what most of them would have to talk about if sat side by side at a soirée.
Perhaps they would chat about the history of the rugby shirt: Legend has it that a young William Webb Ellis one fateful day in 1823 elected to pick up the ball and run during a game of football at Rugby School in Warwickshire. Thus was born the game of rugby, a new sport that soon caught on within the circle of England’s elite public schools. And, as with any new sport, there was a need for some novel kit.
The early clobber of those pioneering players was, given the time and context, appropriately cultivated albeit entirely unfit for purpose. They wore white flannel shirts and matching trousers, small caps, bowties, and — occasionally — even monocles. If that sounds about as practical as a group of Edwardian cricketers breaking into a game of footy mid-innings, it wasn’t far off. There were a lot of ripped trousers, tacklers dangling from shirt tails, and (one assumes) a good few broken monocles.
Those first impractical dress shirts eventually gave way to some equally impractical woollen jumpers and then, finally, to the predecessors of the heavy cotton rugby shirts we know today. While the collared rugby jersey has long since disappeared from the professional game, classic rugbys have always featured a collar short and rigid enough not to go flying around a player’s face while running mid-game and strong enough to survive the beating inevitably taken by anything that finds itself on the field during play. Their buttons — if they have them at all — have also long been hidden within the placket or made of something malleable like rubber to prevent them from injuring players (which might seem like rather a quaint concession in such a famously bloody sport).
Soon enough, another distinguishing part of the rugby shirt began to develop. Jerseys in various single colours had naturally evolved to tell teams apart, but as the sport grew and more and more teams joined and began to merge, various striped and even patterned shirts began to catch on either because all the solid colours were already taken or as a way to combine the kits of two newly consolidated clubs. If they were striped, however, whether marked by a single band or crossed by any number of parallel lines, they inevitably ran horizontally since football had already put its proprietary stamp on the vertical stripe.
It was only from about the 1950s onward that rugby shirts became part of everyday fashion. As often happens, fans started wearing game kit as a show of support and, given the context with which the game of rugby was still mostly associated, the garment gained quite a posh reputation. Rugby shirts duly became known as kick-about casualwear for the privately educated, particularly across the pond.
Just as a generation of Brits were beginning to subvert the upper-class associations of the rugby shirt in the UK — think of the aforementioned Hockney and Jagger in the 1960s — that same item came to epitomise a certain Ivy League aesthetic in America. There’s perhaps no better illustration of this than the fact that both Gant and Ralph Lauren, two of the premier purveyors of all things Ivy, should have dedicated (and now defunct) lines respectively called ‘Rugger’ and ‘Rugby’.
Even in the US, however, the garment soon gained a more diverse following. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard is widely credited with introducing regulation rugby shirts imported from Britain into US mountain climbing circles in the 1970s, thus giving the rugby back some of its original rugged flair. And by the 1990s, as part of hip-hop’s wider appropriation of traditional prep style, rugby shirts also found their way into streetwear in large part thanks to generations of emcees ranging from Snoop Dogg, to Kanye West, to Chance the Rapper wearing them on stage.
I’ve worn rugby shirts for most of my life, initially strictly under coercion and now entirely and enthusiastically by choice. I’ve written before about how my one-time hatred of all sports has given way to a love of sport-infused clothing and rugby represents what might be the best example of this trajectory. There was a time during my school years when I was forced to play rugby six out of seven days a week and I hated every second of it; now any day on which I can pull on a snug rugby jersey is always the happier for it. I have a couple of them that I cycle through: a retro South African rugby jersey I wear while watching my home nation play, a beat-up Patagonia number that is a regular fixture on autumnal hikes, and a preppier one I bought earlier this year from the first viral Babenzein-era J.Crew collection. I’ve also long had my eye on something in this order from one of the newer generation of preppy outfitters like Rowing Blazers, Drake’s, Noah, and ALD, or one of the more old-school styles from the likes of Barbarian, Withernot, Battenwear, and Community Clothing. There are even times when I manage to convince myself I too would look good in one of those David Beckham rugby shirts by Kent & Curwen, although those moments soon pass. Mostly, though, I wish I had hung onto the jerseys I wore while actually playing rugby back in high school. But, not unlike the classic rugby shirt in the context of the professional game today, those have sadly long since disappeared.