The rugby shirt is a wardrobe classic. Having long transcended its muddy Saturday afternoon origins, it’s the everyman of menswear, equally lauded by streetwear enthusiasts as it is lovers of classic prep. And for good reason.
It’s easy to wear, comfortable and can seamlessly transition 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 sportswear staple.
Rugby Shirt Buying Considerations
When it comes to rugby shirt fit, it’s really down to personal preference. It was originally slim-cut, which made it difficult for players to grab and hang on to each other’s jerseys on the field. Opting for such a fit today gives a smarter look, meaning the rugby shirt works with tailored trousers in place of an Oxford button-down shirt.
For a more laid-back feel, a relaxed fit rugby is a great option, and versatile too. A number of streetwear-inspired brands offer looser fit rugby jerseys, which team up nicely with denim, cargo trousers and sneakers.
Rugby shirts are generally limited with fabric choice. Traditionally, it’s a mid-to-heavyweight cotton jersey which, along with the contrast cotton collar and long sleeves, defines the garment.
One thing to consider is the fabric’s weight, which can vary slightly. Heavier cottons work best in the cooler months, obviously, making the rugby shirt perfect for layering under outerwear. Lighter cottons can occasionally be found, making the rugby jersey more summer appropriate, although the long sleeves mean you’re unlikely to wear it on the beach.
One of the reasons rugby shirts are so popular is the huge variation of colour and stripe combinations on offer. Historically, stripes indicated which team the shirt belonged to. Now, they add a colourful pop to an otherwise muted look.
How bold you go is up to you. The beauty of the shirt is its versatility. It can be the focal point of a look, with bright multi-coloured shades; or it can be a subtle accent, with neutral tones that complement your other clothes.
How to Wear a Rugby Shirt
Although it’s an inherently casual garment, it’s possible to dress up a rugby shirt with tailoring. You just have to pay attention to a few key points. Regardless of how bright your rugby is, it will generally only work with unstructured blazers. Pairing one with a traditional business suit, with strong, roped shoulders, isn’t something we’d advise, as the clash of smart and casual is just too severe.
Try a relaxed, unstructured sports jacket cut from a herringbone wool or cotton twill, which will match the texture of the rugby. Finish the look with suede desert boots or loafers and don’t be afraid to tuck it in.
This is perhaps the rugby shirt’s favoured position on the menswear field. Like the polo shirt, the rugby’s collar means it sits well under blazers or lightweight jackets, and looks at home worn over tailored trousers.
There’s plenty of scope for high-low dressing here, and there are a number of combinations that look great when executed well. For starters, combine a rugby shirt with jeans, an unstructured tweed blazer and Derbies. Just remember to roll the hem so the jeans sit just above the ankle if you don’t want to look like a club secretary with tickets for Twickenham.
If you’re new to the rugby shirt game, this is the easiest place to start. Casual and sporty style is a natural pairing for denim, of course. It plays well with shorts in the spring, or loopback sweatpants and sneakers for the ultimate in vintage sportswear-inspired comfort.
Don’t forget the headwear either. Baseball, five and six-panel caps will complete a casual rugby shirt get-up in the warmer months, and a beanie will finish a layered look in winter.
The Best Rugby Shirt Brands
Known for its contemporary updates on classic menswear pieces, Ami produces rugby shirts with a subtly different slant. Beautifully made fabrics cut in oversized designs, these work perfectly for those after a jersey that combines throwback design with modern detailing.
Shop now at Farfetch
He’s 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 finest order. Expect to find timeless, striped styles in easy to wear colours.
Shop now at SSENSE
Another brand falling on the more traditional end of the spectrum, Gant has produced preppy staples ever since its founding in 1949. An American-Swedish brand, head to Gant for authentic, well-crafted rugby shirts made from soft yet durable cotton.
Shop now at John Lewis
J. Crew makes 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 bound to shake things up though, so look out for rugby shirts that perfectly combine throwback styling with streetwear sensibilities.
Shop now at J.Crew
It’s easy to forget Carhartt dates back well over 100 years ago, in 1889. Its workwear pieces are rooted in designs over a century old, but feel incredibly modern thanks to refined cuts and functional details. Check out the Detroit brand’s streetwear-focussed WIP line for rugby shirts in subtly oversized fits, perfect for wearing casually with denim and sneakers.
Shop now at END.
Founded by Brendon Babenzien, Noah offers modern, streetwear-inspired takes on classic menswear, with a focus on quality fabric and sustainability. The brand’s rugby shirts are cut with relaxed fits and often feature unique detailing, such as zips in place of buttons, embroidery, or logos on the rear.
Shop now at Noah
Rowing Blazers has the most comprehensive range of rugby shirts of any brand we know. Made in Portugal and cut from heavyweight 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 after, this NYC label has you covered.
Shop now at Rowing Blazers
In a relatively short time, Drake’s has marked itself out as one of the preeminent menswear brands championing classic British style. Its designs are always timeless and well-cut from the finest fabrics, but Drake’s isn’t shy of putting its own spin on wardrobe staples. It produces classic rugby shirts as you’d find them 50 years ago, but also a ‘mock collar’ take, with knitted cuffs and a polo shirt-like mini collar.
Shop now at MR PORTER
The History of the Rugby Shirt
Like many great items of clothing, the rugby shirt was born out of function. It was designed for the game of rugby, first played in the 1800s at the Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. While originally made of wool, which stretched easily and got heavy when saturated with sweat, rain and mud, cotton quickly became the material of choice for the rugby shirt.
The cotton was heavyweight for durability, and jerseys were cut close to the body to reduce the chance of opposing players pulling them. Unlike polo shirts at the time, which often had collars that flapped around, rugby shirts had stiff cotton collars that stayed in place, and no buttons on the placket to avoid scratches.
The shirt’s most distinctive features – its colourful stripes – helped distinguish between the teams. Every team, from universities to the pros, had their own colours, which would feature as stripes across the torso of the shirts. This ensured the rugby shirt’s popularity away from the pitch. It showed team pride around the university campus. Plus, the style was a fun, easy way to inject colour into people’s wardrobes.
The rugby shirt’s menswear stock rose in the 1960s and 1970s, when icons such as David Hockney and Mick Jagger began to wear them; Jagger with his Savile Row tailoring and Hockney in his typically dishevelled yet somehow elegant manner. Here, the rugby shirt became cool, subverting its stuffy, upper class associations. Fast forward to today and it’s had its moment 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.