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Make it Work: The Past and Present of Women’s Rugby Kit

The USWRF Women's Rugby History project has a large collection of jerseys from 50 years of women’s rugby. Many have historical significance, (first collegiate jerseys, first WNT, WC, or WPL jerseys), others belonged to iconic players or referees, like Kathy Flores, Laurel Lockett, or Jenn Crawford and some are just representative of a time or team.

Laurel Lockett refs England v Italy at the '91 WC

When young players wander through the exhibit they rub the hard cotton or poly blend fabric of the early jerseys between their fingers, stare at the long sleeves and button-up collars and ask “how did you play in these things?’

We explain to visitors that in the early days of women’s rugby, a jersey was a part of the game. Props bound at the ‘v’ collar of the hookers jersey. Coaches taught players to use the jersey in rucking, mauling, and tackling (grabbing a fistful of jersey and flinging an opponent down was a fairly common tackling technique as were the twisted, dislocated, and broken fingers that came from grabbing the jersey).

But there is no denying that early jerseys, while fashionable, were heavy, hot, and uncomfortable to play in. The shoulders were as wide as the waist and the jersey hung below your hips. Photos from the 1991 Women’s World Cup match against the Netherlands show players in waterlogged, muddy uniforms. The heavy, soaked jerseys hung at the same level as the cuff of their drooping shorts; wet, muddy sleeves hung below their hands. Imagine the weight of those jerseys as the game wore on!

But at the time, women had few options for uniforms. There were only a handful of manufacturers supplying the US market, and no manufacturers considered women a market. The common belief was that women could just wear a men’s small. But a small men’s jersey had shoulders and sleeves tailored for male proportions. There was no consideration of breasts. Shorts were problematic as the inseams and front rise were too long for women, leading to saggy crotches. Men’s shorts were often too tight in the butt resulting in women choosing large shorts with too-big waistbands. We looked sad in the early years.

As players became stronger and fitter, sagging jerseys became a deterrent to the game. Watching top players tackled by their jerseys was no longer a part of the game but a problem that needed fixing.

Emil Signes, coach of the Atlantis 7’s showed us a film of Jenn Crawford being tackled by a one-hand grab from behind. An opponent grabbed her loose-fitting, thick jersey and thwarted a breakaway try. Emil had his Atlantis team wear soccer jerseys in the 2001 Carib 7’s tournament and brought the idea to the national team. “We loved the jerseys. They tapered to our bodies, were hard to grab but most of all they were lighter and more breathable.”

(Pam Irby, player 1998 World Cup Team)

The introduction of light, form-fitting jerseys was an improvement but brought its own set of challenges for women. Many players, particularly tight 5 players, balked at the idea of exposing their bodies to such a degree. But invariably they sucked it up for the team. But it’s worth noting that wearing form-fitting jerseys can have a psychological cost. Research on other “non-lean sports” (volleyball, basketball, and rowing) has shown that revealing uniforms contributed to feelings of body self-consciousness among athletes [1]. However, like our beloved tight five sisters, participants in these studies discussed an ability to ignore body image concerns while participating in their sport.

Most players today wear unisex jerseys, meaning the jersey is cut using measurements of shoulders, hips, and waist. This is fine for men, but women’s key body measurements include shoulders, waist and hips, bust, upper arm girth, and width across the back. Moreover, women who play rugby present a different problem to manufacturers from our non-lean athletic sisters in basketball, soccer, and rowing. Rugby players often have large thighs and broad shoulders. Some players can have thicker waists, broader butts, and larger upper arm girth.

A quick overview of some current manufacturers (Castor, Gilbert, Adidas) shows that they use the same measurements for men and women (chest, waist, hip, and inseam). However, some manufacturers are thoughtful about gender differences, as Akuma, representative Paul Knowles offered:

We do take bust, waist, and hip girth; shoulder width; inseam length, upper arm girth, and across back width into account when creating the templates for women's kit, but it's not practical to order jerseys based on 5 or 6 different measurements. If for every jersey we offered 13 different sizes (which we do) and 6 different measurements, that would be 13^6 — or 1,857,661 — potential sizing combinations, and it's beyond Akuma's capabilities to create that many templates. Instead, we utilized research on over 200 female players, (with a minimum of 10 in each position), analyzing chest, waist, hip, shoulder, and arm dimensions and seeing how each dimension typically changed as chest size changed. Our templates were created based on this and then chest size /dress size becomes the measurement that acts as a proxy for all the other measurements.

We don't claim to offer a tailor-made fit for every single player, but instead, believe that our templates will fit most female players well, and we can then adapt the fit a little further by, for example, adding length to the jersey for taller women. In some cases, teams actually opt for men's jerseys for some positions because the women prefer the men's fit, in which case we provide a mix of men's and women's cuts for the team. The important thing, which sadly is still not common in the industry, is that Akuma gives women's teams what we think is a better fit, but more importantly, we give them greater choice.

Ruggette RFC, a small, female-owned company out of the UK, has opened up in the US and has been getting some buzz from women. Ruggette’s founder, Stef Evans, a player herself notes “The types of athleticism and body composition varies greatly in rugby — so should the apparel we wear to play it. It’s not that complicated, and yet our community is so used to not being accommodated in such a basic way. Sport apparel should be made for the people playing the sport, it’s just that simple.”

In order to create Ruggette’s patterns, she collated data for various sizes, getting measurements and feedback from approximately 100 players across all levels of play for each sizing increment — XXS all the way to 4XL. The result is sizing that is scaled to meet the average measurements of "real rugby bodies", and two fits to offer personal preference choice to the individual. “You’re never going to have something fit everyone absolutely perfectly unless it’s custom tailored to each individual," says Evans, “but if the ready to wear garment you’re getting is made using an average data set of other people who are like you, who play the same sport, who have similar body types, who tend to wear the same size you tend to wear, the fit fail rate drops off dramatically. I call it intelligent size grading — it’s not exactly rocket science, but it costs a lot more to do from a production standpoint than using the industry standard of just one fit model, which is why the vast majority of clothing manufacturers can’t or won’t do it.”

Jade McGrath, a player for Scion, Berkeley All Blues, and PR7’s Experts offers:

I own a pair of the Ruggette femme fit clubhouse shorts.The shorts are super durable and I would describe them as hearty, but still light. They're comfy and tough, but not stiff. The waistband is very thick, which I like most days, but is polarizing with folks. I love that the inner thigh of the shorts is a bit longer so there's no chafing. You also get a good fit in the hips without the shorts having to be massive on the rest of the leg, unlike with men's rugby shorts that either have no room in the hips/butt or you have to get waaaay too big in order to just get them up if you have any curves at all.

The Tampa Bay Krewe is one of the few teams wearing Ruggette jerseys and shorts. We asked Nikki Snyder, a member of the Krewe and Scion, about her experiences with Ruggette kit.

In comparison to past kits we have worn it’s almost a night and day difference.The material is higher quality and soft but not too soft that it is easily ripped while playing or easily stretched by tacklers. It is definitely a women’s fit. The shorts are a little shorter but still long enough that everyone feels comfortable wearing them. It is also more effective at moisture wicking so it keeps us cooler than other kits during the Florida heat.

Evans offers that the biggest obstacle Ruggette faces for team kits is the long-standing exclusivity contracts with big brands, and club budgets that haven’t considered women’s teams. “In the States, you don’t see it as often at the recreational club level, but it’s prevalent in University and High School programs. It’s very standard and makes sense that a brand would want to secure that club and its teams across several seasons, but those who are in the decision making positions for these deals are not always prioritizing the entire playing group - men and women - when they are evaluating those deals. A lot of elite women’s clubs and teams, even pro teams, are still playing and training in men’s kit for this exact reason.”

What will my daughter wear?

It’s likely your daughter will play in some pretty wild uniforms both in terms of comfort and functionality. She’s likely to consider the form-fitting jerseys of today with the same "what were you thinking?" mindset museum visitors have when looking at long sleeve jerseys from the 1980s. Beyond fit, the biggest evolution in jerseys in the past few years has been wearable technology. Jerseys with pockets for a sensor, like a GPS tracker, or ones that collect biometric measures of players. The tracker will soon be history as that technology is currently being miniaturized and integrated into fabrics (called intelligent fibers) which will result in new types of wearable technologies and smart jerseys available to a wider range of athletes. There are also emerging nanotechnologies that will allow wearable technology to be ‘printed’ on a jersey and enable coaches to track an athlete's biodata. This technology will also have the ability to change the color of the jersey or display signs for the audience. Exciting for sure, but let's just hope that it fits.


[1] Nemeth, M.C., Park, H. & Mendle, J. Collegiate female athletes’ body image and clothing behaviors. Fash Text 7, 16 (2020).]

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