The rugby shirt is a wardrobe classic. Long gone from the muddy origins of Saturday afternoons, it’s the man of menswear, acclaimed as much by streetwear enthusiasts as by fans of classic prep. And for good reason.
It’s easy to wear, comfortable and can transition seamlessly between smart and casual looks depending on how you wear it. In short, you need one. Or two. From the best rugby shirt brands to how to wear them, here’s everything you need to know about the basics of sportswear.
Considerations When Buying Rugby Shirts
When it comes to the fit of a rugby shirt, it really depends on personal preference. It was originally cut slim, making it difficult for players to grab and hold each other’s jerseys on the field. Opting for such a fit today gives a smarter look, meaning the rugby shirt works with fitted trousers instead of an Oxford button-down shirt.
For a more relaxed feel, a relaxed fit rugby is a great option, and versatile too. A number of streetwear-inspired brands offer rugby jerseys with a looser fit, which go well with denim, cargo pants and sneakers.
Rugby shirts are generally limited with fabric choice. Traditionally, it is a medium to heavyweight cotton jersey that, along with the contrasting cotton collar and long sleeves, defines the garment.
One thing to consider is the weight of the fabric, which can vary slightly. Heavier cotton naturally works best in the colder months, making the rugby shirt perfect as a layer under outerwear. Sometimes lighter cottons can be found, making the rugby jersey more suitable for summer, although the long sleeves mean you probably won’t wear it on the beach.
One of the reasons rugby shirts are so popular is the huge variety of color and stripe combinations on offer. Historically, stripes indicated which team the shirt belonged to. Now they add a colorful pop to an otherwise muted look.
How bold you go is up to you. The great thing about the shirt is its versatility. It can be the centerpiece of a look, with bright multicolored hues; or it can be a subtle accent, with neutral tones that complement your other attire.
How to wear a rugby shirt
Although it is an inherently casual piece of clothing, it is possible to dress up a rugby shirt with customization. You just need to pay attention to a few important points. No matter how bright your rugby is, it generally only works with unstructured blazers. Pairing one with a traditional suit, with strong roped shoulders, is not something we advise, as the clash between smart and casual is just too serious.
Try a relaxed, unstructured sports jacket in herringbone wool or cotton twill that matches the texture of the rugby. Complete the look with suede desert boots or loafers and don’t be afraid to tuck it in.
This is arguably the rugby shirt’s favorite position in terms of menswear. Like the polo shirt, the rugby collar fits well under blazers or lightweight jackets and looks at home with tailored trousers.
There’s plenty of room here for high-low dressing, and there are some combinations that look great when done right. For starters, combine a rugby shirt with jeans, an unstructured tweed blazer and derbies. Don’t forget to roll the hem so the jeans sit just above the ankle if you don’t want to look like a club secretary with Twickenham tickets.
If you’re new to the rugby shirt game, this is the easiest place to start. Casual and sporty style is of course a natural combination for denim. It goes well with spring shorts, or loopback sweatpants and sneakers for the ultimate in vintage, sportswear-inspired comfort.
Also don’t forget the headgear. Baseball caps, five and six panel caps complete a casual rugby shirt in the warmer months, and a beanie completes a layered look in winter.
The best brands of rugby shirts
Known for its contemporary updates to classic menswear, Ami produces rugby shirts with a subtly different slant. Beautifully crafted fabrics cut in oversized designs, these work perfectly for those looking for a jersey that combines retro design with modern details.
He is the king of American prep and maker of classic garments that stand the test of time. No wonder Ralph Lauren produces expertly designed rugby shirts of the highest order. Expect timeless striped styles in easy-to-wear colors.
Another brand that falls on the more traditional end of the spectrum, Gant has been producing preppy basics since its founding in 1949. An American-Swedish brand, go to Gant for authentic, well-made rugby shirts made from soft yet durable cotton.
J. Crew creates classic designs with traditional fabrications, often updated with modern, slim fits. The brand’s newly announced creative director Brendon Babenzien (ex-Supreme and founder of Noah) is set to shake things up, though, so look out for rugby shirts that perfectly blend vintage style with streetwear sensibilities.
It’s easy to forget that Carhartt dates back more than 100 years, in 1889. The workwear pieces are rooted in designs over a century old, but feel incredibly modern thanks to refined cuts and functional details. Check out Detroit’s streetwear-focused WIP line of rugby shirts in subtly oversized fits, perfect for casual wear with denim and trainers.
Founded by Brendon Babenzien, Noah offers modern, streetwear-inspired versions of classic menswear, with a focus on quality fabrics and durability. The brand’s rugby shirts have a relaxed fit and often feature unique details, such as zippers instead of buttons, embroidery or logos on the back.
Rowing Blazers has the most comprehensive range of rugby shirts of any brand we know of. Made in Portugal and cut from heavy cotton jersey, the brand’s rugbys include everything from classic block stripes to reproductions of shirts worn by Hockney and Jagger. Whatever style of rugby shirt you’re looking for, this NYC label has it all.
In a relatively short time, Drake’s has distinguished itself as one of the foremost menswear brands championing classic British style. The designs are always timeless and well cut from the finest fabrics, but Drake’s doesn’t shy away from putting their own spin on garments. It produces classic rugby shirts as you would find them 50 years ago, but also a ‘fake collar’ version, with knitted cuffs and a polo shirt-like mini collar.
The history of the rugby shirt
Like many great garments, the rugby shirt is born of function. It was designed for the game of rugby, which was first played in the 1800s at Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. Although originally made from wool, which stretched easily and became heavy when soaked with sweat, rain and mud, cotton quickly became the material of choice for the rugby shirt.
The cotton was heavy for durability and jerseys were cut close to the body to reduce the chances of opponents pulling on it. Unlike polo shirts at the time, which often had flapping collars, rugby shirts had stiff cotton collars that stayed in place and no buttons on the placket to prevent scratches.
The shirt’s most distinctive features – the colorful stripes – helped set the teams apart. Each team, from universities to pros, had its own colors, which would appear as stripes across the torso of the shirts. This ensured that the rugby shirt was also popular off the field. It showed team pride around the university campus. Plus, the style was a fun, easy way to inject color into people’s wardrobes.
The menswear stock of the rugby shirt soared in the 1960s and 1970s, when icons like David Hockney and Mick Jagger started wearing them; Jagger in his Savile Row attire and Hockney in his typically disheveled yet somehow elegant way. Here the rugby shirt became cool and undermined the stuffy associations of the upper class. Fast forward to today and it’s had its day in hip-hop – Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Tyler the Creator are fans – and every brand worth its salt makes them, from Ralph Lauren to Aime Leon Dore.