Sporting Life: The Rugby Shirt, A Prep Staple Latecomer

In a web post during the 2011 Rugby World Cup, GQ France wrote, “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 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.”

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

48 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. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. >>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??)

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

  10. I fact-checked my own comment, and it was actually the US Polo Association, not the American Polo Association. The story:

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

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

  11. 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.

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

  13. 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).

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

    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.

  15. @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.

  16. 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.

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

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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).

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

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

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


    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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

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

  31. 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.

  32. 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, 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

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

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

  36. I live in them (when at home) from mid-October to late April or early May each year. For going on 40 years now.

    Best Regards,


  37. What Rugby shirts I’ve owned, all were a size larger so I could wear them as a pullover for my Polo or OCBD shirts.

  38. Old School Tie | June 29, 2020 at 10:58 am |

    Rugby shirts. Bought from the school shop, obviously. Worn on the field or at school only. Once you’d left I suppose you could wear it to the pub on a Sunday or to watch matches/walk the dog. Fake ones are a tad déclassé I would have thought.

  39. What is ‘fake’ anyway? Many Ivy / preppy staples are inspired in sportswear. I think it’s OK to wear a striped, white-collared jersey shirt even though you don’t play rugby. For the same reason it’s OK to wear polo shirts, OCBD’s, striped ties and blue blazers.

  40. While the Official Preppy Handbook might have left out the rugby shirt, its less well known sequel, the Official Preppy Desk Diary (copyright 1981), included the rugby shirt on the page for Sept. 19.

  41. I hate that LLBean puts their label on their rugby shirts. I don’t want to be a walking billboard for their products.

  42. Michael Powell | December 18, 2020 at 9:18 pm |

    From late October until about early April, my Fall-Winter-Spring uniform is a Rugby and khakis; pretty much every time I leave the house. Somehow, I’ve accumulated 18 of them; only six of which are classic hoops. They are all Barbarian shirts, and they are becoming a rarity. The Canadian soccer/rugby clothing supplier has stopped making the heavy cotton shirts; going for the lightweight fabric “fashion” shirts instead.

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  45. Lawrence Denis Freitas | May 3, 2022 at 7:55 pm |

    I played rugby in the old style cotton shirts for years, starting at Santa Clara University in 1973 (when we would beat St. Mary’s) then refereed in them in the 90s, even after in the mid-200s, when the polyester plastic shirts came into vogue. No one used to cut the sleeves short either until the late 80s. On a warm day, they got rolled up. The rugby shirts then were sacred! The production of the newer polyester shirts adds to global warming, by the way, because they are oil based clothing. I might be the last referee in the Northern California RFU to wear cotton shirts. In fact, I just ordered a custom one from Clifton Clothing in the UK, in the pink/magenta, the colors for the polyester referee shirts in the referee society in Northern Cal. Other referees are interested in getting a cotton one like I am, so I emailed my order to some other referees. AI also loved playing in the old cotton shirts. They were great on chilly winter Saturdays, and each brand had different weights: Canterbury of New Zealand and Halbro of the UK were mid-weight, not too heavy, so they didn’t get water-logged in rain. Barbarians were very heavy, and therefore got waterlogged in wet weather. The new polyester shirts are not worn for social occasions or for casual wear like the old cotton ones, and let me tell you, they totally stink after a match. I would not want to be the person who has to get some 15 to 20 shirts washed for a club after a match.

  46. Lawrence Denis Freitas | May 3, 2022 at 8:06 pm |

    I also am looking for a shorts manufacturer that will make the old fashioned rugby shorts that had the elasticized sides, drawstring, and a tab front with the buttons hidden. Halbro made them until about 10 years ago and stopped. Barbarian makes them, but the inseam is only about 2.5 inches. Halbro had a four inch inseam that shrunk a bit with multiple washings. I still have three pairs and they are in fairly good condition, as I wore them refereeing matches in the last eight years and rotated them. I have contacted J Peterman, who now have rugby shirts on sale, about making them in a long length, sent in some photos to their customer service. No response. Barbarian doesn’t seem interested in making their Barbarian RUZ short a longer length. I even contacted Web Ellis XV in the UK about making those classic looking shorts, in a longer length. They are great looking shorts, look a bit like old-fashioned tennis shorts, and I am sure they doubled for both sports way back when; and if anyone want to see photos, just Google rugby photo images from the 50’s to the 90s’ You’ll see players wearing them, especially from the Four Home Unions: England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. They were rather short in inseam starting in the 70s and into the 80s.

  47. Lawrence Denis Freitas | May 3, 2022 at 8:12 pm |

    I would love to see cotton rugby shirts return and polyester dropped! Polyester clothing is bad for the planet, and a source of micro-plastics. No one wanted to wear polyester in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It didn’t warm anyone up in cold and made one hot on warm days. They also itched a bit, and by the way, I did wear acrylic Halbro shirts for one club I played for, and it itched to wear them. Then someone in the early 2000s figured out how to make polyester clothing better, and it made a huge comeback, and rugby sport clothing manufacturers started to sell them. They are tight fitting for the most part, and that makes it harder to tackle a ball carrier, so it’s no wonder that head concussions have risen in the past few decades in rugby. So, I’d love a return to cotton shirts, long sleeve or short, because I can never figure out why anyone would wear a long sleeve polyester T shirt under a short sleeve rugby polyester shirt on a cold day! I’d rather wear one long sleeve shirt!

  48. RaleighPrep | August 29, 2022 at 7:00 am |

    Land’s End made some of the best of the breed. Our family ordered at least a half-dozen apiece in the 80s as frequent Christmas goodies. The Land’s End ruggers were excellent quality; very thick cotton, with the white collars, rubber buttons, and tasteful color combinations. They were also very warm and I wore em’ all the time in the colder months, usually with Duck Head khakis but also L.L. Bean tan, wide-wale cords, and sometimes with jeans. Most were solid white with two alternating bold stripes (red & navy…pink & lavender…etc.). A favorite—that I still have somewhere—was the alternating blue and yellow stripes of my fraternity colors, with embroidered Greek letters on the upper left side. (Land’s End would embroider your initials or fraternity Greek letters for a few extra bucks.) Most of these shirts were either outgrown or simply worn out. (The white collars were excellent quality but yellowed a tad over time, despite frequent washings.)

    I also had a few RL ruggers (didn’t know about any RL lawsuit at the time), and they were also cherished—especially a rare, vertical striped one in pink, Kelly green, navy and yellow, with an understated little Polo player logo (miss that rugby the most)—but also a few with the big, flouncy RL “monogrammed” logo (think RL in cursive and crossed Polo mallets), with padded elbow patches). Great colors on those too—navy, maroon & gold; navy, green & white. Due to the flouncy, cursive logos I probably wouldn’t wear those today but, hey, it was the 80s, and I still kinda’ miss em’ anyway. (And the 80s…)

    Years ago I found a red and white striped Land’s End rugger at a thrift for $5, but stopped wearing it when every other person asked me, “Where’s Waldo?” (OK, it seemed like a good, cheap find at the time, especially pre-Waldo…)

    I only have a few rugbys now, but love the few that I have: an authentically-inspired version from J.Crew, circa 2003, in navy with small, red diagonal stripes, white collar, rubber buttons. It’s very similar to the Land’s End version of yore, and worn quite a bit in chillier weather…sometimes with a blue or blue & white University stripe OCBD underneath…which honestly looks damn cool, especially with a tweed or cord blazer over it all. The other is a heather gray Gant with one white barrel stripe on the chest & the white collar. It’s thinner than the J.Crew and a little more boring, but looks great with my pea coat and college scarf.

    It’s still a men’s club sport at my alma mater (and an actual NCAA-approved sport for women). I’d love to get one of their crimson & gray striped versions with its collegiate letter logo on the left chest.

    Speaking of that, I guess there will always be those on this site that insist Rugby shirts “aren’t authentically Trad,” or “should only be worn by Rugby players,” or are “not Ivy.” Whatever. *Eye Roll* They’re usually the same tools that insist you’re not a prep unless you went to Prep school; not Trad unless you’re over 65; or can’t dress Ivy unless you went to Yale…in 65’. Ridiculous poppycock all.)

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