The rugby shirt has gone through several iterations. The performance fieldwear staple – made of cotton thick enough to withstand scrums with a limp collar to limit whiplash-inducing takedowns – became a frathouse emblem during the rise of the preppy look. Now, the iconic, horizontal-striped shirts are evolving into a go-to element of even un-athletic graduates' wardrobes.
Renewed attention to tailoring is, broadly speaking, what is making the style increasingly popular with non-players. "I like a rugby that is slim fitting, but not tight," says Glen Hoffs, Director of Men's Design for Brooks Brothers, which has lately been stocking a colorful array of the shirts. "I frequently like to layer something under the rugby, like a henley or an oxford. But in warmer weather I like them with a ribbon belt and the sleeves slightly pushed up."
The look Hoffs describes still owes a lot to the Ivy League, but the shirts he produces are more versatile than traditional rugby tops, which look extreme casual in a clubhouse sort of way. The new breed feels more like an alternative to polo shirts – and Hoff says that's no coincidence. "There has been a trend in the last few years towards the short-sleeve rugby, or the rugolo [combined rugby and polo]," he explains. Still, the designer – like his blue-blood brand – doesn't go in for gimmickry.
"My personal preference is for the long-sleeve style," Hoff says. "I think we're in a cycle where people want what is authentic and not some overly tricked out version."
The key to getting the new rugby shirt right is buying one that actually fits. "The other important thing to note about fit is that the shoulder seam should sit at the top of the shoulder, not down on the arm," says Hoff. A cleaner silhouette looks more respectful and less like the casual gear packed in the steamer trunk of a prep school bully. That said, school colors still dominate. Ralph Lauren and Nautica offer bright color combinations and Brooks Brothers Red Fleece Collection has just released a handsome, chambray accented number.
The other approach, of course, is to buy an actual team jersey, many of which are now tailored to the needs of fans rather than for actual competitions. The New Zealand All Blacks' jersey is a classic, but we prefer the USA National Team's slightly garish look. Sure, you'll look like an ad for Emirates Air, but you'll also be the first of your friends to own a piece that will likely be signficantly more popular as the sport gains popularity stateside. [Brooks Brother's rugby shirts from $148; brooksbrothers.com]