It wasn’t until the 1950s that the rugby shirt began to be worn off the pitch, a period which coincided with the rise of other classic athletic-inspired prep pieces like the classic varsity jacket. Like most sports paraphernalia, the rugby shirt was initially adopted by fans—students at posh colleges would turn out to games wearing the same long-sleeved shirts as on the pitch, a show of solidarity with those on the field.
Slowly, but surely, it became a staple of sport and class-obsessed Western society. The rugby shirt had a collar, which lent itself to the fashion of the times, but was more comfortable and casual than a button-down. It was also an indicator of social status: Tony Collins, one of the world’s foremost experts on the sport,
explained to 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.” The Wall Street Journal
In 1950’s America, the
rugby appeared to be popular on Ivy League campuses—again, a testament to the social status attached to it—whereas it had become more mainstream in Britain. School-affiliated stores would sell generic versions of the shirts worn by the varsity teams, while J.Press, the American clothier, would import rugby shirts directly from the U.K. It remained a relatively niche part of the prep style lexicon until the mid-’60s. In 1963, , a movie about rugby, debuted in theaters to much fanfare in the United States and helped popularize the sport, but also the heavy cotton garment. Shōsuke Ishizu’s seminal 1965 book, This Sporting Life , contains images of students walking through campuses wearing rugbys; while Take Ivy Take Ivy wasn’t necessarily widely-read in America, it did speak to the garment’s ties to the prep aesthetic in the ’60s.
A pair of notable Britons actually co-opted the rugby as a sign of class rebellion in the ’60s and ’70s. Mick Jagger, a celebrity, but not born to an upper-class family, was famously fond of the garment and
helped democratize it. So, too, did David Hockney, the working-class painter, who was frequently photographed wearing a rugby shirt.
As the rugby’s popularity grew, more brands began to produce their own casual takes on the garment and more people began to wear it. Gant, the Connecticut-founded menswear label often credited with democratizing the button-down shirt, launched a new sportswear line in 1974 and called it “Rugger”, a nod to one of rugby’s nicknames.
Interestingly, the garment was appropriated by rock climbers, who saw tremendous value in the heavy cotton’s durability. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard is actually the one widely credited with popularizing the rugby among climbers and the brand he founded before Patagonia, Great Pacific Iron Works, frequently featured rugbys in its advertisements.
By the 1980s the rugby had—somewhat curiously—become a symbol of Americana, rather than Britannia. In addition to Gant, revered New England brands L.L. Bean and Land’s End made the rugby shirt a staple of their offerings and Columbia Knit, a Portland, Oregon-based manufacturer, helped turn the rugby shirt into one of the quintessential made-in-America pieces. Prep-minded retailers, like [Brooks Brothers](
https://www.grailed.com/designers/brooks-brothers, stocked rugbys in larger quantities than J.Press had in the ’50s. Ralph Lauren, too, began producing rugbys and by the 1990s, the garment featured prominently in advertisements for Polo Ralph Lauren.
As part of hip-hop’s wider appropriation of traditional American prep in the ’90s, the rugby became a common sighting on emcees—think of
Snoop Dogg rocking a Tommy Hilfiger rugby on . And, like many things in the ’90s, the rugbys worn casually gradually became bigger and baggier, which stood in stark contrast to the tight-fitting garments worn on the pitch in a bid to give defenders absolutely nothing to swipe at. It also stood in stark contrast to the on-pitch product, when, at the turn of the millennium, teams were eschewing the traditional long-sleeved, heavy cotton collared rugby for form-fitting, collarless, lightweight synthetic tops that more closely resembled soccer jerseys. Needless to say, the contemporary rugby jersey does not have the same panache of the traditional rugby shirt, nor is it held in the same regard. Saturday Night Live