From Hockney to Kanye: the eternal appeal of the rugby shirt

The sportswear garment, loved by artists and musicians including David Hockney, Mick Jagger and Kanye West, has turned into a design staple. Here’s how it continuously reinvents itself while retaining the charme of a classic.

A little more than two decades ago, in the summer of 2003, Nike decided to accomplish what for many Brits represented sacrilege: to revolutionize the canons of the rugby jersey, which had otherwise remained unchanged since the second half of the 1800s.

For that year's World Cup, the Swoosh decided to get rid of two of the garment's pivotal elements: the crispy white polo collar and the heavy cotton material. The latter was such a rooted and recognisable staple of the game to have inspired the name of one of the longest-running manufacturers of rugby uniforms, Cotton's Traders.

Less than a year later, the then 20-year-old Kanye West would release his debut record The College Dropout. For its promotion, the rapper accompanied all of his public outings sporting preppy looks, which revolved around Ralph Lauren rugby polo shirts. Specifically, his image was mostly associated with a blue and orange striped pattern, as recently paparazzied on his daughter North.

Over the past two decades, while on the pitch rugby jerseys have evolved and improved in matters of performance season by season, on the streets the old cotton shirt has imposed itself as a cornerstone of leisurewear. Credit to the essential design combined with a breadth of color and pattern combinations including, mostly, horizontal stripes, but also plain, quarter and patchwork designs.

From the campus to the street: at the roots of the phenomenon

Long before the noughties, David Hockney was among the first to realise the street-oriented potential of this garment. The artist, after all, had made the bold use of colours an integral element to his oeuvre.

As early as the late 1960s, the English painter had himself portrayed several times wearing rugby polo shirts in the combinations of pink and navy blue, red and navy blue, yellow and navy blue, and green and royal blue, the latter immortalised in his 1977 "Self portrait with blue guitar." For the artist, rugby shirts thus became an extension of his canvases into everyday life.

The rugby shirt seems to sublimate Hockney's love of horizontally striped garments, so much so that over the years he has made the pattern a distinctive element, also applied to shirts and ties, often coming in matching sets. Simply take the portrait used for the cover of his first and cult biography David Hockney by David Hockney (Thames & Hudson, 1976).

For the artist, rugby shirts thus became an extension of his canvases into everyday life..

The second half of the 1970s is the period in which the garment experienced its first and true leisurewear boom, aided by the affirmation – in the post-hippie era – of a style that looked back to the essentiality of American and British sports and collegiate wardrobes. The rise of brands – which over the years have imposed themselves as bona fide establishments – such as Beams, Drake's, and Tommy Hilfiger, as well as the rediscovery of L.L. Bean, GAP, Gant, and Ralph Lauren, paved the way for the Preppy and Yuppie trends to come. The rugby shirt therefore stood as a pivotal element in their attempt to smooth out the formality of Ivy League tradition.

“Upper class sports have long been a pillar to global menswear: from the ‘polo’ button-down shirt collar to tweed hunting jackets. Rugby shirts, too, have an elevated origin — especially compared with football or American football jerseys,” explains street style and subculture fashion expert W. David Marx, author of the best seller Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style (Basic Books, 2015), and Status and Culture (Viking, 2022).

“The quirk about rugby shirts, however, is their role as a key pillar in the 1970s outdoor clothing boom, as pioneered by Patagonia. Preppy style of the 1980s then grows out of a hybrid of Ivy (button-downs) and outdoor (L.L. Bean down vests and Norwegian sweater), so the rugby shirt is an ideal garment in this merger.”

At the height of the phenomenon, the rugby jerseys that Italian firm Benetton designed for Benetton Treviso became an instant classic, seamlessly translated from the pitch to the terraces of British football grounds. There, the Casuals subverted their original meaning, contributing to secure their place in menswear history.

La polo da rugby secondo Drake's. Foto su gentile concessione di Drake's.
The rugby shirt according to Drake's. Photo: via Drake's.

The reasons behind the timeless appeal

It is thanks to these brands far removed from the world of sports that, amidst ups and downs, the appeal of the rugby polo shirt has been nurtured over the years. In the early 2000s, Kanye West’s endorsement of Ralph Lauren, as well as his partnership with the equally historic GAP, led to a further change in perception of this piece of clothing. Simultaneously it grew as an indie kids favourite, to be religiously worn with nonchalantly wasted attitude, with the collar unbuttoned or popped up, next to other polo shirts like Fred Perry’s.

This contributed to the rugby shirt’s establishment as a fetish of many streetwear and skating brands born at the turn of the new millennium. These include Supreme and Palace, which have repurposed the rugby polo shirt several times over the past two decades, bringing it to the present day and to endorsements by pop stars including Dua Lipa and Justin Bieber, seen in classic Ralph Lauren designs.

Today, the new preppy revival, also promoted by industry publications such as Popeye and Kaleidoscope, seems to confirm the trend. Next to the models by historical and streetwear brands, customers can now enjoy the takes offered by the likes of Rowing Blazers and A.W.M.S., newly-established ventures which have rapidly risen to cult status.

La polo da rugby secondo Rowing Blazers per la sua collezione Fall-Winter 18. Immagine su gentile concessione di Rowing Blazers.
The rugby shirt according to Rowing Blazers. Photo: via Rowing Blazers.

A research conducted by the UK-based firm Future Marketing Insights predicts an increase of more than 11% in the sale of rugby apparel and merchandising for the decade 2022-2032, for a turnover nearing $3 million. A report published by The Guardian, similarly, suggests a similar trend for the leisurewear and vintage-oriented side of rugby. Searches for rugby polo shirts on the popular second-hand platform Depop have tripled over the past five years, in an ever-increasing head-to-head with the otherwise popular football kits.

We now have a romantic nostalgic attraction to both Seventies outdoor and Eighties Preppy, which makes rugby shirts work with almost everything.

"Rugby shirts have a universal appeal in the simplicity of their format — a boxy comfortable jersey pullover with white collar — and then the ability to change up the colour to be solid, striped, or even mismatched," says Marx.

The rugby shirt as seen by A.W.M.S. Photo A.W.M.S.

The secret of the rugby shirt, then, lies in its seamless crossover across audiences, generations, and social contexts. Whether worn with a blazer, over an Oxford button-down shirt, or paired with sneakers and loose trousers on a skateboard, the rugby polo is equally beloved by the scions of historic Ivy League and Oxbridge universities – including Prince William and Harry in the 2000s – and by artists. Long before Kanye West, in fact, in the mid-1960s Mick Jagger was among the first rock stars to pose in a rugby shirt, an amber and navy blue model, as seen in a shot by Jean-marie Périer alongside Françoise Hardy.

“We now have a romantic nostalgic attraction to both Seventies outdoor and Eighties Preppy, which makes rugby shirts work with almost everything,” concludes Marx.

Opening image: David Hockney indossa una delle sue polo da rugby con sullo sfondo la tela Self Portrait with Blue Guitar, 1977. Photo © National Portrait Gallery

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