Heritage, Revisited: The Return of the Rugby Shirt for Men

Picture late-‘90s preppy, perhaps in a Tommy Hilfiger, Perry Ellis, or Polo ad campaign. You’ve got your wide-legged jeans with visible logos, sporty-casual pullovers, and plenty of primary color-blocking, with a smattering of white and dark green, to go around. It screams laidback Americana – a combination of retro Ivy League sensibilities and effortless sportswear, with a tinge of urban style thrown in for mass appeal. Somewhere in there, there’s a rugby shirt – long-sleeved, bold, blocky stripes, and a contrasting collar elevating it far above your average tee.

Menswear – and streetwear, in particular – is seeing its own late-‘90s, early-aughts revival, with heritage sportswear and prominent logos making their way back into our wardrobes. It’s reminiscent of a simpler, more direct time, but also part of how fashion cycles back. We’ve gone through Grunge, ravewear, and old-school hip-hop styles – and late ‘90s logomania is logically next in line. To date, color-blocked windbreakers and anoraks, wider-cut jeans without stretch fabrication, and Champion sweatshirts, many sporting large logo graphics, reference the end of the Clinton era. Thus, within this revived glut, rugby shirts are having their moment.

History of the Rugby Shirt

These days, everyone from Chaps to Supreme, Palace, and Acne Studios is trying their hand at this sportswear-leaning preppy staple. Yet, its origins go back to the middle of the 19th century.

Rugby, as a sport, started up at the U.K.’s Rugby School in the 1830s, and grew in popularity over the following decades through organized clubs. Yet, the Rugby School’s own team was the first to play with an official uniform. Initial configurations paired a wool sweater with white pants, but with time, it shifted to a long cotton flannel shirt, a bow tie, and a cap, with players wearing long pants – a stark contrast to today’s slim, polyester-based uniforms and shorts. These early shirts, particularly, had a comparatively thicker construction, made out of heavy-gauge cotton, and featured short collars with rubber buttons. This mix – tough enough that the material wouldn’t rip, buttons would come undone rather than fall off, and a collar stayed in place and wasn’t easily grabbed by the opposing team – performed far better on the pitch.

The shirt eventually sported stripes – perhaps one of the garment’s most prominent features – to visually distinguish one team from another. Five or six stripes, in clearly contrasting, alternating colors, is the traditional design, although modern casualwear frequently breaks from this template.

Today, the shirt shares several similarities with the polo. Keep in mind, however, that polo shirts initially featured pointed, button-down collars – a similarly practical feature. Yet, what we consider the polo shirt in the modern sense didn’t actually originate from the sport; rather, it’s a style that harks back to the tennis court.

Yet, much like the polo-originating button-down, the rugby shirt entered the casual sphere in the middle of the 20th century, favored by college crowds and growing into a preppy staple. Symbolically, appropriating these styles implied competitiveness and exclusivity, without the wearer having to join a club and get on the field.

Over the following decades, the rugby shirt surfaced on occasion: heavily color-blocked and reconfigured for the ‘80s, with casually preppy connotations, and with informal American heritage vibes toward the end of the ‘90s.

Rugby teams – from the practice level up toward the pro leagues – have since strayed from this design for obvious reasons. One, athleticwear in general has switched toward more performance-based materials – thin, stretchy polyester and elastane combinations, often enhanced with moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and antimicrobial properties. Secondly, and true to the shirt’s initial design, a closer fit means less material to grab.

Thus, in the present day, a synthetic blend makes up most actual rugby shirts, which, design wise, sit closer to the skin, offer a breathable sensation, wick away sweat, and have even better tear resistance than the traditional heavyweight cotton garment. Specific to the sport, small rubber bubbles, added to the chest and shoulder, help with catching the ball or holding onto a teammate’s shoulder. As well, instead of embroidered graphics, sublimated colors and logos tend to hold better through the wash.

Many of these changes started during the early aughts. And, as activewear shifts toward lighter, more streamlined construction, seeing this traditional garment go through a major facelift was only inevitable. 

The Rugby Shirt, Updated

So, in today’s menswear landscape, where, exactly, does the rugby shirt fit? It’s a curious, incongruous case of being both retro and heritage.

Heritage wise, streetwear’s going through its own metamorphosis, of sorts, with an admiration for all things workwear. The strength of cotton duck and denim reflects the country’s industrial, hardworking past, all while simultaneously delivering the quality many find absent in most fast-fashion garments. The trickle-down effect has led to selvedge denim, workwear on the runway, and collaborations between more traditional workwear brands and streetwear labels.

Yet, heritage and Americana aren’t one in the same, and at the same time, emphasis on high-quality basics reflects a return to mid-century preppy essentials. A man has to have a crisp white button-up, slim but not skinny chinos, some knitwear, and perhaps a bomber jacket. Polo shirts, another essential from this period, got churned out as a statement item over the past summer – hinting at their sportswear roots and the current obsession for color-blocking – and rugby shirts, in this regards, tag along as a long-sleeved version, highlighted by a contrasting collar.

Within this vein, we’ve seen major brands play it carefully safe: Acne Studios, for instance, sticks with wide-striped color-blocking, with width the only variable factor. On the other end, rising streetwear brands Noah and Patta played up the retro ‘90s angle, pairing the garment with a mix of preppy classics – think light-washed chino pants and parkas – and left-of-center garments – casual suits and silk athletic jackets, indicating its wide-reaching range of possibilities.

And, then, there are Supreme and Palace. In a fairly predictable fashion, the two streetwear juggernauts take the traditional silhouette and color-blocked design and use that as a template for logo-based designs: Palace, across the shoulders, while Supreme opts for a box-style graphic directly across the center. Supreme, as well, co-opted the design for its Playboy collaboration, using the magazine’s well-known logo as a chest patch and, in a surprisingly subtle twist, embroidering its own brand name on the right side.

Wearing the Rugby Shirt

In a nutshell, the rugby shirt counts as a statement garment. For one, bold, contrasting shades and color-blocking both get attention, no matter if you take a strictly traditional route or opt for a streetwear iteration. Secondly, it occupies the same level of just-dressy casual menswear that the polo does: Not purely for chilling out, but you wouldn’t exactly put one on for a networking function, either. Thirdly, as detailed above, its heritage past, through both American and British lenses, colors its characters: In 2018, you can’t escape its elite- and athlete-tinged associations.

For Everyday Wear

Therefore, style the garment with these points in mind. For everyday use, for instance, keep the rest of your look neutral – that’s why jeans and khaki pants paired so well with it in the late ‘90s. For an updated turn, match the pattern to any gray, black, navy, or tan chinos or straight-cut mid- to -dark-wash denim. Anything wider – or featuring side pockets – takes us back a couple of decades.

From here, any lace-up boot or solid-color sneaker completes your ensemble. For transitional seasons, consider throwing over a black or navy bomber or even a denim jacket.

Athletic

In essence, the rugby shirt could be considered one of the first true pieces of athleisure: Roots on the field, and adaptable enough for everyday wear. As such, look at it through this context: No, you might not be inclined to wear it with above-the-knee shorts, but rather, it’s one of those less-typical matches for jogger pants. As joggers themselves leave gym class connotations behind for nylon blends and streetwear-forward zipper accents, the rugby shirt seems like a fine pairing. Just keep your joggers neutral to let the stripes shine.

Don’t go overboard with a dad shoe, though. Rather, for subtlety, keep it to your solid-color kicks – something along the lines of a Stan Smith or even Vans – and finish it off with a track jacket.

Streetwear

In this context, throw your reservations into the wind. Purely within the streetwear space, rugby shirts have carved out their own spot, through color-blocking, large logos, and even embroidery. Stripes veer away from the standards, and all in all, it’s the upscale version of the ‘90s you don’t entirely remember. Thus, now’s the time to look like you stepped out of a lookbook: Combine it with a varsity jacket to relive your high school years, exaggerate the decade’s styles with cropped, wide-legged pants, and don’t forget about your cap and kicks. For true retro realness, basketball shoes come first, followed by a bucket hat or five-panel dad cap, and if it’s cold, have a matching puffer jacket, preferably accented by a large logo, on hand.