Rugby shirts as a topic to consider was a tough sell this week. Our editor has an (irrational) hatred of them, but after sharing some fun tidbits I was able to convince her. Hopefully you’ll stick around to the end as well. If you do, you’ll see a video of Kevin and I being interviewed by the Parramatta Eels, one of the teams in the Australia’s National Rugby League.
Sports uniforms are fascinating (even for people like me who don’t like professional sports - don’t come for me). On a practical level they reflect the best of fabrication technology, and when taken off the field they are totems of loyalty and status. While some people may disagree that rugby shirts are stylish, they are definitely having a “moment”. The streetwear brand Noah has many styles and the Montreal retailer SSense wrote a whole editorial about them.
Sports uniforms evolve over time to reflect the changing nature of the sport, its athletes and improvements in technology. Some changes, like the Speedo Fastskin suits and Nike Vaporfly shoes were banned from professional sports for giving the wearer an uncompetitive advantage. Rugby shirts are different. While the on-field attire has continued to evolve, the type of uniforms worn in the 60s and 70s have frozen in the popular imagination. Current rugby uniforms look much more like soccer uniforms, but I bet that’s not what you pictured when reading the title of this article.
The sport itself was invented in 1823 and is named after the Rugby School in England, where it was first played. There, they played the game of “rugby-style football” like they lived: in dress shirts with bow ties and monocles.
Needless to say, as the game evolved so did the uniforms. They got rid of the shirttails they commonly wore because opponents would grab onto them to tackle players. They were replaced with collared wool sweaters and eventually, with thick cotton collared shirts.
As the sport grew in popularity, teams needed a way to differentiate from one another. They started by wearing different coloured shirts, but the number of teams exceeded the number of colours. Eventually stripes, or alternating panels, became popular. National teams still keep their solid colour jerseys, like black for New Zealand (known as the All Blacks) and yellow for South Africa. From our new friend Rob in the comments, the Wallabies (Australia) wear yellow jerseys with green collars. The Springboks (South Africa) wear green jerseys with yellow collars and sleeves.
Unlike soccer shirts, which often have vertical stripes, rugby shirts have horizontal stripes called “hoops.” Also, some shirts have panels composed of different colours or patterns.
Rugby became a signal of wealth and status, along with the rest of Ivy League prep culture, thanks to its association with private schools and the people who attended them. Tony Collins, a rugby historian, explained to The Wall Street Journal that rugby was primarily played “by people who were privately educated” and, as such, “[rugby shirts] were an indicator of who you were and your status in the world.”
There are two main manufacturers of rugby shirts in North America: Barbarian Sports Wear and Columbiaknit. If you are shopping for a rugby shirt at a place like Noah, Rowing Blazers or elsewhere, and the tag says Made in Canada, it was likely fabricated by Barbarian. If it says Made in the USA, chances are it was made by Columbiaknit. One of the oldest rugby shirt manufacturers is Canterbury of New Zealand. Established in 1904, they have kept their NZ roots and gained international renown for the uniforms of New Zealand’s famed All Black rugby team.
Barbarian has been around since 1981. It went into receivership (like our favourite glassware company, Duralex) in 2013 and was bought by nearby company Salus Marine Wear. Salus Marine Wear is owned by former college rugby player Steve Wagner, who I had a chance to speak to this week. He wore Barbarian rugby shirts as a player in the 80s, and given his personal history in manufacturing athletic goods, he was able to put in the only bid that would keep the company operating. He has been running both companies ever since.
How do you know it's good stuff? 25% of their output goes to the Japanese market, where their eye for authenticity and heritage detail is on point. Barbarian does private label manufacturing for 30 stores in Japan and 15 well known brands in North America. If your browser still supports Flash, you can even make a custom shirt.
The remainder of their cotton jersey production has morphed into “spirit and fashion wear.” Spirit wear is what you buy in a college bookstore, and they supply to most Canadian universities and US schools, including Harvard. With the pandemic shutting down most campuses, Barbarian pivoted their excess capacity to PPE manufacturing, which has helped them to retain their staff.
As the casual market grew, the actual on-field gear continued to evolve. First, rugby teams got rid of the collars (too easy to grab on to) and then got rid of the sleeves. Starting in the 1990s, teams moved away from cotton to synthetic fabrics. Current jerseys look more like soccer kits than traditional sweaters. They are also worn VERY tight to the body to make them harder to grab and the players harder to tackle.
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Great Pacific Iron Works and Patagonia is partially responsible for bringing rugby shirts off college campuses and into the wilderness. In 1968, Chouinard, along with the founder of The North Face, Doug Tompkins, rock climber Chris Jones, U.S. ski/snowboard Hall of Famer Dick Dorworth, and Mountainfilm founder Lito Tejada-Flores bought a van and drove down to Patagonia. At the time they were all just “dirtbags” (their term, not mine) but this trip inspired their illustrious careers. The rugby shirt became their attire of choice because of its durability, and also because the collars allowed them to carry rope coils without chafing their necks.
Chouinard’s first brand, Great Pacific Iron Works, frequently featured rugbys in its advertisements and its catalogue (you can find one here for a cool $3,500, a nice premium over the $14 they retailed for in the 70s). They have since become a staple of the Patagonia product line.
Both Barbarian and Columbiaknit use sustainably produced American cotton and produce their wares locally. The variations in patterns and small runs result in some considerable fabric waste. Both companies have responded differently to this challenge. Barbarian uses the excess fabric in their dog beds, and Columbiaknit repurposes their scraps into practice shirts, for the sartorially bold.
There are also incredible vintage Barbarian and Columbiaknit rugby shirts available for sale on Ebay, Etsy and Grailed. I purchased this one as “research” and am seriously considering this one. With the lifetime warranty and low cost, you can’t go wrong.
PS: In the darkest days of quarantine, Kevin went a little nuts without organized sports to watch. He discovered the Parramatta Eels, a rugby team in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. They were playing to empty stadiums and were one of the first sports teams to print cut-outs of their fans and place them in the stadium seats. Kevin got us a couple seats along with some other friends. The team thought it was pretty funny and featured us on their social media channels.