Timeless Style: The Rugby Shirt

“A rugby shirt is the most masculine thing a man can wear”
Esquire magazine

Polo. Tennis. Cricket. Heck, even baseball. Sports have a tremendous influence over what we wear and how we wear it. While a cricket jumper is a great piece of statement knitwear and tying your jumper loosely around your neck like a tennis player is a go to move for a Preppy/Ivy League look, there’s one sport that is perhaps the most stylish of all. You have probably already concluded that I’m talking about rugby – and you would be absolutely right.

From the oft-derided university fashion of Jack Wills to the rugged cool of Gant and in particular its diffusion line Gant Rugger, rugby remains a reference point in classic English style. This can be observed in the dress sense of its players off the pitch – indeed this writer remembers meeting one Castro Giovanni in his (excellent) Italian restaurant and being impressed by his choice of grey suit and tan Chelsea boots – but today we’re going to focus on the most obvious item: the rugby shirt.

The Rugby Shirt

First, a little bit about the shirt itself. Initially you will notice that it’s quite similar to a polo shirt – however, there are a number of differences, some key and some subtle:

  • Sleeves – while players often don short sleeved varieties, as a fashion item the rugby shirt should always be long sleeved, normally ending in a ribbed cuff.
  • Fabric – Polyesters and synthetic materials are common in the modern game, but for casual wear the rules change again. Go for one in classic cotton, typically thicker than a polo shirt.
  • Collar – the collar of a rugby shirt is normally stiffer and more starched than that of a polo, often made of twill or a similar material.
  • Buttons – the buttons on rugby jerseys are traditionally rubber. This is to ensure that in a game situation they will undo rather than pop off when pulled hard. These are again not as common in rugby shirts from designers or high street brands, but would add subtle authenticity to the piece.
  • Fit – while this is true of many polo shirts as well, rugby shirts are almost always snug fitting. This is usually a good thing, and should suit the modern Dandy to a T.
  • Embroidery – The rugby shirt is first and foremost a type of uniform, so it follows that it bears some kind of identification. On the sports variety the crest of the team is depicted on the left side of the chest, and the maker on the right – ours will probably be branded with a crest on the left of the chest.

By now you may have (correctly) assumed we’re not talking about a genuine team jersey. While showing support for your side is all well and good, looking like a walking sponsorship deal isn’t (to show support with style try a scarf or socks in your team’s colours). The conspicuous branding and often bold designs of most team strips preclude their presence in the wardrobes of the stylish.

That isn’t to say, though, that classic design features are to be disregarded entirely; wide horizontal stripes and a crest on the left of the chest can be a good way to reference proper rugby heritage with relative discretion.

Catwalk Inspiration

Men's Rugby Tops on the Spring/Summer 2012 Catwalks

Here are some examples of the rugby shirt’s presence on the spring/summer 2012 catwalks. While, with the exception of Gant, the shirt was not a recurring theme throughout any collection, it maintains a place within many an outfit – its presence is bound to increase in the coming seasons on both the catwalks and the high street, given the current move back towards classic “manly” style.

The first image [left] from Gant demonstrates the approach of a designer intimately familiar with the piece. Accent colours in the rugby shirt are used to bring out main colours in surrounding pieces and vice versa. Regardless of the surrounding pieces, a relaxed approach is adopted and the buttons are undone.

The next image [centre] is from Paul Smith. The piece here is a twist on the traditional rugby shirt, and appears to be made from chambray or a similar material. Here it’s integrated into a smarter look; Mr Smith has paired the piece with double breasted tailoring, a key trend for both this season and the next.

The final look [right] is from Michael Bastian. This look hits a lot of the trends related to the item we’ve seen. The buttons are undone, it’s layered cleverly and the pattern is emphasized by complimentary patterns on the surrounding pieces. Take note, also, of the shorts; most of the designers who used the shirt in their collections opted to pair it with shorts at one point or another and come the warmer months of next year this will be a great look.

How To Wear: The Rugby Shirt
Look Book

Men's Rugby Shirt Look Book

Here are three example looks I’ve put together to give you some ideas about how you might wear your rugby shirt.

Look 1:
  • Gant Rugger Striped Cotton Rugby Top
  • Diesel Shioner 882 Slim Jean

The first look is probably the simplest possible. A rugby shirt can be worn on its own as your first layer, which is going to be a wise move as we enter the colder season. Slim, dark jeans and desert boots are casual staples.

What will set you apart is how you wear it; the classic approach is to play up the relaxed, masculine appeal of the shirt by rolling up the sleeves and undoing the buttons. Extroverts may here choose to pop the collar for a preppy look; it takes real, ahem, swagger to pull this off. The opposite approach is to do it up to the top button, a trend which has really taken off of late. Anywhere between the two is just as good, so put your own stamp on it.

Remember that you don’t have to stick to jeans when going for a simple and stripped back approach. The top left image in the look book above shows how a rugby shirt can be paired with herringbone, wool or tweed trousers in order to smarten up the whole aesthetic whilst still maintaining that relaxed and comfortable vibe suitable for the weekend. With textures playing a major part in this season’s trends, this would be an excellent option for those brisk autumn days.

Look 2
  • Aubin & Wills Hynes Cotton Rugby Shirt
  • Barbour Union Jack International Waxed Jacket
  • Black/Blue Geometric Cravat
  • Mustard Cord Slim Chinos
  • Grenson Stanley Brogue Shoes
  • Gant Contrast Heel and Toe Ribbed Socks

This is a busier look. Here we’re acknowledging the roots of the top by working it into a casual look that hits the heritage trend. The rugby shirt is used as a simple, rugged anchor for other statements; cords, brogues and the waxed Barbour jacket are all great basics for a countryside look.

Worn in a formal style under the open collar of the rugby shirt, the patterned cravat adds the unexpected shot of dandy cool that could set you apart; it’s entirely optional but works wonderfully. Dark blue socks look great as a flash of colour between the brown tones of the brogues and chinos, whilst simultaneously tying the top and bottom halves together.

Look 3
  • Blue and Green Stripe Rugby Polo Shirt
  • Ben Sherman Kensington Collar Laundered End On End Shirt
  • Burgundy Knitted Tie, Nick Bronson
  • gucci Corduroy blazer
  • Stone Cotton Slim Chino
  • Grenson Stanley Brogue Shoes

This last outfit is very much inspired by the picture in the look book [bottom centre], which was taken from the Gant website and layers the rugby shirt between a shirt and tie combination, and a blazer. This should hopefully give you an idea of how versatile the rugby shirt is in terms of layering! The Gant look co-ordinated three different check patterns to add depth; this one works the same way, using a laundered shirt, knitted tie, marled top and corduroy jacket to really add some interplay between textures.

Such a busy torso demands a simple bottom half, so basic slim chinos and brogues are the order of the day. Undo every button of the rugby shirt here to show off the shirt and tie. This is ostensibly a smart casual look; the rugby shirt instantly dresses down whatever you wear it with.

There are myriad other ways to wear this top; I could have gone on to include the rugby shirt as a way of dressing down a suit, under a V neck knit, rolled up with shorts… It’s quite possibly more versatile than its close relative, the polo shirt.

Current Season Men’s Rugby Shirts
  • Polo Ralph Lauren Stripe Rugby Shirt
  • Canterbury of New Zealand Long Sleeve Rugby Polo Shirt
  • Aubin & Wills Hynes Cotton Rugby Shirt
  • Navy White And Pink Stripe Rugby Shirt
  • Multi stripe rugby top
  • Denim Blue and Gold Stripe Rugby
  • Denim and Green Rugby
  • Cord Collar Stripe Rugby
  • Long Sleeve Cut and Sew Rugby
  • polo ralph lauren Striped rugby top
  • Union Jack Rugby Jersey
  • POLO RALPH LAUREN Rugby Jersey
  • POLO RALPH LAUREN Striped Rugby Jersey
  • Polo Ralph Lauren<br /> Navy Sailing Cut Sew Rugby Top
  • Gant Regula fitted plain rugby top

And that concludes our look at a resurgent classic. The rugby shirt speaks of masculinity, heritage and relaxed style. Get it right, and you will look as at home in a rugby shirt as the national team themselves – although that is becoming easier by the day!

So what do you think?

  • Do sportswear and style cross over well?
  • Where do you draw the line between a rugby and a polo?
  • How would you style the item?
  • Do you already own a rugby shirt?
  • Should the rugby shirt be classed as a menswear staple/essential?
  • What is the most masculine thing a man can wear?

Join the discussion in the comments section below…

Sam Gilbert