A rugby shirt, as anyone who’s ever owned one will know, isn’t really for rugby - and that’s particularly true for Black & Blue 1871’s old-school shirts. Sure, you’ll throw it on at the weekend to watch your team at the pub but that’s far from the extent of its use - you’ll also be found in it gardening, walking the dog, at the beach, or any other occasion where you might need a comfortable, warm, long-sleeved top. Because that’s exactly what it is - the mention of rugby is on the one hand essential to its origins and, on the other, incidental to its usage.
Rugby, though, is where these shirts come from and what their style continues to be influenced by - but it’s not as we know rugby shirts today. Modern kit is built to be as performance-orientated as possible: tight-fitting, moisture-wicking and packed with sensors to analyse players’ physical data during a game. As interesting as these might be, it’s not the kind of kit you’ll want to sport if you’re heading to the pub, unless you’re the size and shape of a professional player. Instead, Black & Blue 1871 are inspired by the rugby shirts of old - the ones that prevailed when the game was still a plucky, amateur affair; when shirts were built to last for longer than 80 minutes; when shirts were stylish, not coated in adverts for sponsors.
For inspiration, Black & Blue 1871 turned the clock back to 1871, when rugby was first codified by 21 founding clubs (it would have been 22 but London Wasps turned up at the wrong venue on the wrong day). Many of these clubs no longer exist but the colours that their team wore and the values that they played by - physical competitiveness on the pitch; respect and civility off it - exist to this day, and Black & Blue 1871 created apparel that is as close to the style of those original shirts as possible.
Designing shirts based on memories and old photographs is one thing, however - manufacturing them to look, feel and perform like those shirts of old is another entirely. Black & Blue 1871’s founder, Matt Forward, discovered the complication when he requested samples from China. Although he had taken every pain to emphasise the vintage style that the shirts needed to embody, the products that were sent back simply didn’t match up to homespun, pre-worn feel of the ones from his youth, that his father and teammates had worn and loved. The cotton felt too synthetic, the embroidery too clipped and artificial - in truth, they felt too modern.
Luckily, rugby shirts aren’t Matt’s only love - he’s also one of the creative minds behind Horizon, the sock brand producing some of the best damn foothuggers we’ve ever encountered. Through his contacts there, Matt was introduced to a manufacturer in Portugal whose founders lived and worked by the values he wanted to instil in Black & Blue 1871’s products: quality, loyalty and friendship. They embraced the concept of these vintage rugby shirts wholeheartedly and soon started to produce apparel that was exactly as Matt had envisaged.
Although fresh from the packaging, the shirts feel and look pre-worn, giving the impression of donning a favourite top with years of memories woven into its fabric; the colours are deliberately and subtly faded to give the same impression. Although the stitching is done by machine, it gives the impression of being embroidered by hand (Matt actually sought out vintage sewing machines to achieve that effect). The fit is loose and comfortable, with a heavyweight slub cotton that’s both soft to touch and hard-wearing.
Overall, these are shirts that are inspired by the bygone days of amateur rugby and that are fit for modern living. If you are a fan of oval balls, these shirts honour the heritage of rugby and offer a classic, comfortable jersey to support your team in; if you can’t tell your rucks from your mauls, these are expertly-made long-sleeved shirts with an attractive, laidback style that can front up to the demands of everyday living. Because Black & Blue 1871 isn’t all about rugby. The name attests to the kind of character that these shirts are suited to: those who get stuck in, whether that’s planting in the garden, climbing trees in the forest or splitting logs for a campfire. If you love rolling up your sleeves and getting active, then these shirts are built for your lifestyle.
Black & Blue 1871 aren’t stopping there, though. They’ve already produced a range of t-shirts, socks, slippers and other accessories, including espresso cups branded with the same insignias as the shirts. As well as the colours of the founding members, they produce varsity shirts, do bespoke orders for universities, clubs and regiments, and a range of international shirts in time for the World Cup in Tokyo later this year. We can’t wait to see where they take this exciting franchise next.
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