Sporting Life: The Rugby Shirt, A Prep Staple Latecomer

In a web post during the Rugby World Cup — which ended on October 24 when France lost to host New Zealand in the final — GQ France called modern rugby shirts “synthetic” and “grotesque.”

In contrast, the post continued, “The classic rugby, in thick cotton, with a white collar and soft buttons, had an honorable place in menswear. Especially preppy menswear. It was a simple, comfortable, colorful item, easy for students in American universities to wear. It was also a good way to display the color’s of one’s school while maintaining a certain degree of elegance.”

But if the rise of the rugby as a piece of prep wear is an American tale (as the French tell it), it’s a relatively recent one. According to G. Bruce Boyer, Esquire’s “Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men’s Fashions,” published in 1973, makes no mention of the rugby. Nor, for that matter, does “The Official Preppy Handbook,” which came out in 1980.

Boyer doesn’t recall seeing the shirts on campus when he was a student in the early 1960s at Moravian College and Lehigh University. The sport, along with the shirt, comes from across the pond. The name comes from the Rugby School, in Warwickshire, England, where the game originated.

But Richard Press, Dartmouth ’59 and also interviewed for this article, recalls the shirts in college. His roommate was a member of the Dartmouth rugby “club,” so named because rugby was not an official sport. Games were in the spring, and attracted varsity football players who couldn’t officially practice football out-of-season under the rules of the just-formed Ivy League. He remembers those games as “extremely rowdy affairs accompanied by much booze and celebration.”

The Co-ops at Dartmouth, Yale et al. carried the shirts in limited quantities. The classic rugby is made of heavy cotton, says Boyer, with long sleeves and a small white collar and placket front with rubber buttons that wouldn’t come off if pulled while playing. Those thick horizontal stripes of color are called “hoops.” They were “easy to wear and launder, comfortable, and with a hearty sporting heritage which appealed to preps,” says Boyer.

J.Press began importing the shirts from the U.K. and sold lots of them until they “went mainstream and became a department store item dumbed-down by third-world resources,” says Press.

Press links that mainstreaming — of the shirt and the sport — to the 1963 release of “This Sporting Life,” a British film about rugby that proved popular in the U.S. and earned Best Actor and Best Actress nominations. Variety says the rugby scenes have “a lively authenticity” and the overall film a “gutsy vitality.”

Flash forward nearly four decades, and one can find a good selection of non-“grotesque” rugbys at retailers including Brooks Brothers (as previewed here in February), and LL Bean.

Gant prides itself on the sportiness of its “Rugger” (another term for rugby). The collar’s “lined on the inside to protect the neck from being chafed.” The buttons are rubber, “to increase durability and safety during rugby tackles.”

And there are, of course, rugby shirts aplenty at Rugby.

On the subject of Rugby — the brand, not the sport or the shirt — GQ France waxes positively poetic. Rugby is for “the preppy on a weekend in the country….The type who visits a village pub on Sunday on bicycle, while the dead autumn leaves have covered the ground with a rust-colored carpet….The next day he’s working in the City or in a Boston law firm.”

Its advice for choosing a rugby is more straightforward: find one “in fairly vivid colors (why not green and pink, since it’s the ultimate preppy color combination)…and wear it with nothing underneath.”

A simple, durable classic, even if of a relatively recent vintage. That’s the rugby shirt. — MATTHEW BENZ

Pictured are various advertising images from Ralph Lauren.

40 Comments on "Sporting Life: The Rugby Shirt, A Prep Staple Latecomer"

  1. dem chinos

  2. Canterbery of New Zealand makes great cotton ruggers in addition to the “performance” (sounds much nicer than “grotesque”) line that people wear to play. I feel that getting one from an actual rugby supplier adds a level of authenticity that the Ralph Lauren family of brands can’t duplicate.

  3. Gentleman Mac | December 6, 2011 at 10:03 am |

    Is that third photo somebody’s high school picture?

  4. Tom Buchanan | December 6, 2011 at 10:47 am |

    The rugby shirt, or something like it, is captured in Take Ivy. Look for the guy with the Gilligan hat.

    Rugby shirts always seemed a natural ivy style component to me, but I played high school rugby. Interesting that the OPH left it out. The Gant rugger line was around in the early 80s.

    One other thing to note is that many of the old school soccer jerseys looked like old rugby jerseys. I agree that the new rugby shirts are awful from a style perspective. But football jerseys have evolved from the old sweaters as well.

  5. Interesting that the French would complain of the state of modern rugby kit. The best pro rugby team in France is known for its brash colors and spandex fit.
    Rugby teams are still all clubs… except at Cal.
    To wear a rugby shirt with a large logo on it that is not an actual team logo is to show the world you are in fact not a rugby player, which is fine, but I find it hard to pallate the mention of th eRugby brand and the sport in the same article without mentioning that RL sued the sport for naming rights. Meaning RL actually tried to make the SPORT change its name, claiming the brand owned the word.
    I cannot find a product that lacks authenticity more than a RL rugby shirt. Sorry.

  6. While I have a few RL rugby shirts (small logo and just stripes/no patches, etc.) , they weren’t the best shirts out there. In school, most people, that wore rugbys, had Land’s End. You could tell from the varying stripe widths and color combinations. Those were great shirts that used a heavy cotton knit and felt indestructable. Can’t say the same for RL rugby shirt construction.

    I agree with Brohammas regarding RL. While I don’t play rugby, it’s hard to cotton RL’s actions against the sport. Guess the name sounded cool for a line that you play designer and add those really cool numbers and patches which mean nothing.

    Land’s End Canvas has rugbys on sale right now and ColumbiaKnit (who apparently made rugbys for LE and LLB) have some great colors at an equally great price. Just not sure of the fit and construction is on these.

  7. Brohammas, I agree with your contempt. RL also sued the American Polo Association for similar nonsense. And CC, can we stop listing The Official Preppy Handbook as a credible source for historical facts. It’s like saying “None of the 1980’s movies had it, so it must be so.”. Scan through the better yearbooks instead.

  8. I don’t think the OPH is to be taken as any kind of gospel. However, it seems like a pretty thoroughly researched chronicle of what a certain group of people were wearing in the late ’70s.

    So I think it’s worth referring to as an historical document, but as you point out, it’s certainly not the only historical document from the time period.

  9. I think the bold colors and large stripe patterns demonstrate bold youthfulness. The images here look great – put some of this on, and its statement is lost.

    Always happy to read your posts.

  10. >>The next day he’s working in the City or in a Boston law firm.<< Is it possible that GQ France is referring to NYC as simply “the City”?

    I see no harm in treating the OPHB as an historical document. But YWP’s suggestion to consult yearbooks of the time (whether of the “better” schools as he says, or of any schools) is a creative and informative way to verify the OPHB.

    Not sure if we really need to bemoan the modernization of the uniforms worn by professional rugby players. It would awfully silly to insist that hockey players went back to wearing knit sweaters, eh? (Get it??)

  11. @Dave T.: Thanks for the info on ColumbiaKnit rugbys. Apparently they are still made in USA. Cool.

  12. I fact-checked my own comment, and it was actually the US Polo Association, not the American Polo Association. The story: http://racked.com/archives/2011/05/17/thanks-to-ralph-lauren-us-polo-association-is-not-allowed-to-use-image-of-polo-players-or-word-polo.php

    To be more infuriated, search “Ralph Lauren + lawsuit”.

    Don’t trust a man whose nose has never been broken.

  13. Let’s be honest, gents:

    The contribution of Ralph Lauren’s Polo to the propagation and I daresay the development of PITA style has been far greater than has been the contribution of the sport of polo.

    The contribution of Ms. Birnbach’s OPH to the propagation and preservation of PITA style is immeasurable.

  14. Dartmouth Rugby is still going strong. They won the National 7s Championship this year:

    http://now.dartmouth.edu/2011/06/dartmouth-men-win-usa-7s-collegiate-rugby-championship/

  15. I can vouch for the Columbia Knit shirts. Nice, heavy cotton and solid construction. My only complaint is the lack of “tails” on the shirt (single hem around the bottom, like a t-shirt).

  16. If you want a real rugby, try here:

    http://www.usa-wear.com/factorystore.html

    Don’t let the website turn you off. Columbia knit used to make them for Lands End and LL Bean. Thick cotton and nice details.

  17. @Gabe: It’s nice when a domestic manufacturer delivers a superior product at an extremely competitive price. It just proves that an item doesn’t have to break the bank to be made in the US.

    @Ben and DHR: Thanks for the feedback on ColumbiaKnit. Might have to pull the trigger and try one out again.

  18. Um, I’m pretty sure that looks just like Kiel James Patrick in that third picture.

  19. The ColumbiaKnit rugbys are very nice but VERY oversized. Size down 1 or even 2. They will provide chest measurements if you ask, but the shoulders are wayyyy wide and it’s boxy. Archival has a different version that’s much more slim fitting.

  20. Love the style, love the rugby look, so fantastic.

  21. Bob McClellan | December 7, 2011 at 8:08 pm |

    Barbarian makes GREAT rugby shirts. I have ordered them for our clothing store with University of Tennessee colors… They are the real deal. Canadian, I know, but still great rugby shirts.

  22. Orthodox Trad | December 7, 2011 at 10:31 pm |

    Pure Preppy stuff.

    This has nothing at all to do with Ivy, Trad, or Americana.

    I was actually tempted to write that this is nursery school clothing.

  23. RL suing the actual sports doesn’t make sense to me, as if they don’t know the chronological order… And something tells me that the shirt is too sporty to be paired with suits (I am referring to the second picture).

  24. I continue to be amused by the forced “cool” expression of the models. Pathetic actually.

  25. Farmer Jones | December 8, 2011 at 10:07 am |

    I’ve played rugby both when we wore the traditional heavy cotton jersey (which of course we hacked the sleeves in half and cut the buttons off) and in the modern poly-blend/spandex jersey.

    The old jersey was good for acquiring interesting rips and stains that gave it “character” but the new ones are much more comfortable to actually play in.

  26. EastCoast,

    For a long time now, models have assumed what are supposed to be “cool” demeanors. I’m afraid that sometimes, they just end up looking constipated (as in the last picture, guy on right).

    Orthodox Trad,

    I think that rugby shirts are good for two groups of people: rugby players, and boys who need a good-looking, hard-wearing shirt.

  27. In my day (college class of ’81), rugby shirts were an item that non-preppy people considered preppy, but that preppies did not necessarily consider preppy. If that makes any sense.

  28. Stubborn Ivy | December 9, 2011 at 8:10 am |

    @Sartre

    Does anything that preppies think make sense?
    Some of them are lucky enough to eventually develop adult tastes. The rest continue to wear ludicrous outfits into adulthood.

  29. Andrew S. Eastman | December 9, 2011 at 3:37 pm |

    Mr. Press might like to know the Dartmouth Rugby Football Club recently won the USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships (“Sevens” is a type of rugby played with seven backs, instead of the typical combination of seven backs and eight forwards, which configuration makes for a faster, more nimble match). The DRFC beat long-time rival Army to secure the championship.

  30. How fortuitous is this? Read this post yesterday. Today, when I went to a local thrift, what do I find? An old school (early 80s?) made in the USA Lands End yellow, green, navy rugby in phenomenal shape! Fit perfectly and only $5. Definitely treasuring this and donating my POS Eddie Bauer one I got for a birthday present.

  31. Skip Castaneda | December 10, 2011 at 8:16 am |

    Thanks for the history lesson! I have three rugby shirts that I’m proud to wear. No logos on them, just the colors of the shirt. After reading this article, I refuse to wear a rugger associated with RL.

  32. Dickey Greenleaf | December 17, 2011 at 9:07 am |

    The Rugby Sport Shirt, is not only an asethic exspression, but also it is a valued treasure worth collecting.

  33. Dickey Greenleaf | December 17, 2011 at 9:21 am |

    Correction, The Rugby Sport Shirt, is not only an aesthetic expression, but also it is a valued treasure worth collecting.

  34. I wonder what real rugby players would think of their uniforms as an “aesthetic expression”?

  35. Interesting article. As a frenchman, where rugby is one of the main sports, I am surprised that the rugby jersey becomes popular in the USA. It has become quiet trendy in France since the 90s, when former french rugby players created their own brands (Eden Park, 15 Serge Blanco etc.). There is also a french website which sells some beautiful vintage rugby shirts of old teams, with laces on the collar.
    The english movie “This Sporting Life” is about Rugby League, which is played by 13 players in each team and mainly popular in Australia and England. The rugby shirts this article talks about are from Rugby Union, played by 15 players. The World Cup recently won by the New Zealand All Blacks is Rugby Union.

  36. Dickey Greenleaf | December 23, 2011 at 5:45 pm |

    Oh come on, Mr. Chensvold, I was doing my best to impress you, however, I do know a little bit about the origins of Rugby. It is a sport similar to football with no padding, and no helmets, and where the players literally try to kill each other almost. So I know it’s not a pretty boy sport. It is a very physical, and dangerous sport. Check out Rugbyfootballhistory.com, a small but, interesting piece on the origins. Personally I think the shirts, from a fashion standpoint,(sartorial) make good impressions about your style, and dress preference,”if there is a such thing as good impressions, and style”?, I bemoan, however, beauty is truly all in the eye’s of the beholder, Sailor! P.S. no offense and I love the blog, nice creation, and good luck with the magazine as well.Yours Truly, Dickey

  37. It’s sportswear. I wore it at school when I had to play rugby on the inconceivably freezing days schools like to make you play it. I also wore one when knocking about outside or inside. That’s about it.

    There’s something horribly false about trying to incorporate this into some sort of style. A shirt inspired by a rugby shirt I could understand, but opting for the full hoops (which likely don’t represent anything, or actually do represent a club the wearer has never belonged to) is beyond sad. It’s like the wearing of a club tie for a club you don’t belong to or a school tie from a school you never attended. False and nonsensical.

    The blazer/shirt and tie/rugby shirt combo in the penultimate photo is laughable.

  38. I think the French are slightly wrong, and also right:

    Wrong: I bought my first rugby shirt for non-rugby-playing-wear in Grimsby, Lincolnshire in 1974.

    The bloke in the sports shop couldn’t get over the fact that I intended to wear it ‘off the field’ — but that’s about the time when they started to appear as casual wear in England.

    When I spent a year at Northwestern University in Chicago from 1979, they were only just beginning to appear as an increasingly popular novelty on campus there.

    Right: Modern rugby shirts are flippin’ ‘orrible, and are hardly ever seen worn on campus or highstreet — however, traditional rugby shirts are as popular as ever as casual wear in England.

  39. I might add that Barbarian is still making the best AUTHENTIC rugby shirts in Canada from US grown cotton.

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