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Dropping Knowledge: The Rugby Shirt

By the editors of MSN Living Jul 31, 2012 7:57PM

Jake Gallagher, GQ Magazine

Our story begins on a pitch (no, we aren't selling anything, we promise). But yes, on "the pitch" during an appropriately grueling rugby match in late 19th century England. In the days of Rugby's infancy, players would show up for games decked in white button down shirts, white trousers, and a bow tie, which is downright laughable considering the sport-in-question encourages competitors to, quite literally, knock the snot out of their opponents.

So, after a few years of sullying their whites with sweat, dirt, tears, and even a few "mystery" stains, the associations worldwide decided a bit of uniformity was in order. The ideal shirt would be made from thick cotton that would stand tough (and not rip) on the wrong end of a scrum. And the collar was crucial (one should always sport a collar when kicking the crap out of another person... it's just dignified). If it was too prominent, it lent itself to a hulking opponent latching onto it like a present day NFL safety's hair, and we're all aware how that turns out. Needless to say, the jersey of choice had a lower profile collar than the average button-up. The last touch on these original shirts was the removal of any buttons on the placket, which could scrape a player's face. Collectively? A fine lesson in preventative maintenance.

Now that the players finally had their dedicated shirts, there was just one more issue to, ahem, tackle: there had to be a way to differentiate one squad from another. Some teams tried out logos, others gave solid colors a shot, but what really stuck was the horizontal stripe. Another sport gaining buzz in the early 20th century was soccer, which favored vertical stripes on jerseys. Rugby simply went for the alternative, and began adding those distinct horizontal bar stripes. The bold color combinations became a trademark of each team and its fans (ie: the "All Blacks" of New Zealand)

In the '50s as the sporting life became a pool of style inspiration, "Tradish" coeds began wearing rugby shirts off the field. In fact, they became as big a part of the preppy sartorial lexicon as the polo shirt: an easy way to associate with the competitive nature of these respective sports without actually having to play them. This attitude continues to draw people to the shirts today: with the post-aughts prep revival still going strong, labels like Michael Bastian, Band of Outsiders, and Ralph Lauren continue to riff on the striped shirts year after year. And why not? They're a perfect accompaniment to a cool fall afternoon, whether you're in the middle of some on-field action, or looking to create your own off of it.

Jake Gallagher writes the blog Wax-Wane. He lives in Manhattan.

Photo: illustration by Brittany Fields

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