The England team has always used a red rose emblem on the left breast.
We have no documentary evidence to explain exactly why the Rugby Football Union chose it in 1871 – just prior to England’s first international match (against Scotland) – and used it on a white jersey. The rose was first standardised by the RFU in 1920 and replaced in turn with a new ‘corporate’ rose in June 1999.
There are three possibilities why a red rose was adopted:
The royal English rose is white and red. It was created to symbolise the marriage between Henry VII (House of Lancaster) and Elizabeth (House of York) and the end of the War of the Roses.
Therefore, the ‘English rose’ is not red. However, subsequent monarchs, such as Elizabeth I, continued to use the red rose because they were descended from the House of Lancaster. So, it is the red rose, rather than the white and red, which is often, incorrectly, seen as symbolising England or the English monarchy. This may be why the RFU selected the red rose.
Secondly, Lawrence Sheriff, the founder of Rugby School – where the game started – was presented with a coat of arms by Elizabeth I. In doing so, she allowed him to use her red rose on the crest.
When he founded Rugby School, the new institution based its own coat of arms on his, so the red rose ended up on the Rugby School crest.
The white kit worn by England was taken from the kit used at Rugby School, so it might be that a symbolic image, which also had royal and English connotations, was taken from the school crest for use as an emblem.
The third possibility is that the red rose was copied from the red rose that is the symbol of the county of Lancashire. Of the subcommittee who selected the first England side in 1871, two came from clubs in Lancashire – Liverpool and Manchester.
It is possible that they were also responsible for selecting the red rose. However, it is unlikely that RFU members from the other counties would not have recognised the bias and reversed the decision immediately.
Not quite all white
The England rugby team has always worn white jerseys and white shorts. The white is not taken from the St. George’s Cross, but from the fact that the boys at Rugby School, and at other schools around the country, played all their sports in a white kit.
White kit could be boil-washed and so was used for all sporting activities. When different houses at Rugby School played each other they wore hooped jerseys, but the Rugby School team, when playing other institutions, continued to wear all white.
In cricket, the retention of white kit for players of both sides was made possible because the majority of one team are off the field of play at any given time. This provides a foolproof indication of their side that does not require clarification through wearing different colours.
Originally, the white jersey and shorts were accompanied by the individual player’s club socks – as the Barbarian Football Club still do today. Using club socks was originally the policy of all four Home Nations sides.
The England team’s use of club socks lasted from 1871 (the first international match) to March 1930 when for some reason – halfway through that year’s Five Nations campaign – they started to play in dark blue socks with a white top. Scotland and Wales had standardised their socks many years before 1930, but the Ireland players were still wearing their club socks into the mid-1950s.
We have no idea why this change came about, who suggested it or why blue was chosen. We have even spoken to England players of the period and they could not shed any light on the matter.
The RFU Minutes do not record the rationale. It is likely that a single-colour sock was perceived as looking smarter but we do not know why they chose blue. Again, it is unlikely to have been a reference to the Union Flag or the Cross of St George – or else red socks would surely have been chosen.
While there has been blue in the England kit since 1930, the addition of the first red touches to the jersey only occurred in 1991. Even then, it was accompanied by the addition of blue to the jersey as well.
In recent years Cotton Traders, and now Nike, have been adding colour to the England Rugby shirt, which was entirely white from 1871 to 1990.
In the summer of 1991, for that year’s Rugby World Cup, Cotton Traders added a blue collar and two thin blue and two thin red hoops to the right upper arm. After reverting to the traditional plain white jersey for the following season’s Five Nations competition, the summer of 1992 saw the introduction of a modified version.
The jersey now had a blue collar and thin red stripes, flanked either side by blue, down the outside of each arm from shoulder to cuff. The 1995 RWC saw the introduction of a final Cotton Traders design – a jersey with a blue collar and two adjoining thick hoops, one red and one blue, around each upper arm.
The start of sponsorship
The 1996/97 season saw the addition of the first sponsor’s logo on the jersey – Cellnet.
The blue second-strip jersey was created, presumably by Cotton Traders, in the early 1990s. It has not been worn very often, but is still produced to cover against every eventuality.
Cotton Traders were the first people to sell the England kit directly to the market place, so they needed to make regular changes to the design. They presumably also saw the potential returns from creating a second strip, even though its use could be as limited as one game every couple of decades.
We assume they made the decision to select a blue second strip because, at that time, the blue on the socks was the only other colour in the kit and they did not want to risk a brand new colour that had no precedent.
Nike took over the England kit manufacture in 1997 and immediately dropped all blue from the white jersey, leaving left red hoops around the top of each arm and red stripes along each side of the torso.
Since then, Nike have been working with red-on-white designs, creating subtle connections with the Cross of St George. However, the retention of the blue socks and second kit still gives the kit the unintended effect of appearing as a red, white and blue design.
In June 1999, England pretended they were the British Isles team of 1899 for Australia’s Test centenary match. The kit – a replica 1899 Lions jersey – was mainly blue with thin red and white hoops, but they also added a rose, giving off very mixed signals. For the first time, BT Cellnet was the sponsor logo on front of jersey.
In the summer of 2002 the sponsor logo had become O2 and Nike also introduced small touches of red to the shorts.
2003 witnessed significant development when Nike introduced tight-fitting, dri-FIT England rugby jerseys designed to prevent tackling via the shirt. The design proved immediately popular and has since been imitated by most other national associations.
The 2007 kit incorporated a sweeping red stripe that invokes the cross of St George, and white socks.