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.

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