Sartorial Love/Hate: The Rugby Shirt


A funny thing occurs when I tell people I used to play rugby for my house: absolutely nobody believes me. Scoffs are heard as far off as Trafalgar Square when I recount stories of scrum-half school heroics; expletives of disbelief are muttered into pints of ale. But as “slight” a frame as I have and as “frilly” as some of my interests appear, it’s hardly a huge stretch of the imagination that I once bounded up and down soggy fields in house colours, being spear-tackled by hefty bully boys and easily sprinting away from players for whom the kindest compliment for their playing prowess was ‘convenient obesity.’

A recent conversation with friends and acquaintances turned to the subject and many a laugh was had at my expense. Of course, the image of professional rugby is that of towering warriors, with necks like tree trunks and a Neanderthal silhouette; “at school” I explained “it was very different.” We were discussing the 2011 World Cup, which is being held in New Zealand, and the misfortune that none of the games occur at hours during which drinking would be seen to be reasonable. This inspired commentary from the group on the pleasures of the pub; the loud roars, the patriotic atmosphere and, of course, the excuse of wearing a rugby shirt.

This last point caused the sort of noise-cocktail of extreme disapproval and hearty support normally experienced in the House of Commons. My ears pricked as I heard the arguments advanced.

The problem with rugby shirts, as far as the detractors could see, is that they are sport shirts which should only be worn on the sports field; got a rugby match? Wear your team shirt. Going to watch a rugby match? Dress as normal. As their argument developed I could hear that hatred of ‘lads’ sport gear culture was a central pillar; branded sport goods were not acceptable wear for grown gentlemen. Rugby shirts were, to them, only considered tolerable by the majority because of their connection to preppy, private school style; they believed they represented the disappointing decline of menswear standards.

The supporters considered virtue in their being a smarter version of sports clothing, particularly the classic hooped designs with white collars. They admitted full replica rugby shirts with numbers and sponsorship was a little too much but they admired the retro sportsman aesthetic of the design that provided gentlemen with a comfortable, casual item that was perfect for weekends; worn over shirts and ties and under cord jackets; a defiant banner of the sportsman when his body has failed him. They also differentiated the shirts from the normal sports replica shirt for sports such as football that become the army colours of an aggressive mob.

Unusually for this love/hate issue, I sit proudly on the fence. I cannot profess to intensely dislike or admire the rugby shirt; I no longer tend to wear them, but I confess to doing so at University – a cliché if ever there was one – and fondly remember their versatility and varsity aesthetic.


  1. John said:

    I view rugby shirts largely the same way I do Polo shirts. First, I don’t often wear either, although I do have both. Second, and more to the point, while they are sports shirts, they are pretty removed from their sports, and can look very good in other contexts.

    September 14, 2011
  2. Adam said:

    I view rugby shirts the same way as football shirts. I don’t wear either as I don’t want to look like a walking advertisement. Second, wearing a rugby shirt is advertising an allegiance to a certain team so is very much tied to sport. Polo shirts cannot or should not be compared to rugby shirts. I have many of the (short sleeved) Fred Perry knitted type as these are stylish in a European or Mod kind of way. Can you imagine a style icon such as Paul Weller wearing a rugby shirt? I can’t.

    September 15, 2011
  3. Lark said:

    An interesting question – definitely brings out some of the underlying contradictions of men’s fashion.

    After all, polo shirts are sports shirts. And I wear country brogues in town without embarrassment even though they’re really intended for long walks on the moors and so on. Doesn’t the tie itself derive from the stock and thus from hunting? Vide tweed jackets, any kind of khaki, wool jersey…Virtually all but the most formal modern dress derives from sport, hunting or the colonial military if you go back far enough. If I recall correctly, sports dress started to become correct dress in the twenties and thirties – wool jersey, knits, driving clothes – and was definitely taken up by the upper classes, probably to show that they could afford cars, holidays at Cannes and all that Wodehousian pleasure expenditure.

    I don’t think it’s sufficient to say “that’s for sport, thus not appropriate at other times” – some sports clothes have been appropriate outside a sports context for the past century. Which ones and why?

    I suspect that “a hatred of laddish culture” is as much about class snobbery as anything else. To me, this isn’t a good enough reason, perhaps because I don’t walk around in dread of being mistaken for a prole.

    On me, though, rugby shirts look a bit too strenuous and enthusiastic somehow – not really in character.

    September 15, 2011
  4. Wear what makes you comfortable but in the knowledge that a rugby shirt with chinos or jeans under an open pea coat may well look fine for walking the dog in autumn worned tucked in or over a shirt and tie quite frankly looks ridiculous. A marketing ploy by Ralph Lauren, layering to encourage the unimaginative to buy the entire fitted-out tailor’s dummy when it’s the dummy that has just entered the store.

    September 19, 2011

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