Team Canterbury

History of the British & Irish Lions Jersey: Colours, Kits and Controversy

Team pose together

In a little under two months, we’ll see the 2021 Lions running out at Murrayfield in the new British & Irish Lions Pro Jersey to face Japan. And then a week later it’s on to Cape Town for the first match of the tour against DHL Stormers. To say we’re excited is an understatement.

And just imagine the feeling for the players when they set foot onto the turf at Joburg’s FNB Stadium on 24th July for the first test against the Springboks. What a moment for all concerned. We’re lucky enough to design and manufacture the Lions jersey again this year and we take that responsibility very seriously.

The 2021 Lions Rugby jersey

The new design of the iconic red jersey features a striking graphic on the shoulders, comprising a multitude of individual pieces which come together to form the image of a lion.

Lions jersey banner

This symbolises the origins of the players and those who have helped them to reach the pinnacle of the game, with each piece paying homage to every teammate, club coach, family member and friend who helped them along the way. This is what being a Lion and reaching the summit of the sport is all about – just as it will be for our 2021 Lions.

But was the jersey always the iconic red? And has there been any changes down the years? Let’s take a look.

A look back at the Lions colours down the years

The classic Lions strip that we know today has been around since the 1950s. We’re talking red shirts, white shorts and green and blue socks, with the colours of all four nations included.

Before the 1950s, things were a little more complicated, however.

Red, white and blue: 1888-1904

Black and white team poses together
1888 British Lions tour to New Zealand and Australia. [Image: Getty].

For the inaugural Lions tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1888, the very first Lions strip consisted of thick red, white and blue hoops, with knee length white shorts and dark socks. For the next two tours to South Africa in 1891 and 1896, we saw a slight change with a red and white hooped jersey and dark blue shorts.

In 1899 in Australia, there was another little tweak with the jersey being made up of thick blue hoops and thin red and white bands. We also love the 1999 jersey worn by England 100 years later to commemorate this famous Lions shirt.

Today’s familiar red and white snuck in for the South African tour in 1903, while we were back to the 1899-style jersey for the next tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1904.

Dropping the blue: 1908

This is where the controversy begins.

Team pose together, black and white image from the past
The Anglo-Welsh touring party after arriving in Wellington in 1908. Manager George Harnett is seated in the centre, with captain Arthur Harding holding a rugby ball to Harnett’s right. [Image: Getty].

For the 1908 tour to New Zealand and Australia once again, the Scottish and Irish unions declined to be involved with only English and Welsh players able to be selected for the tour. Blue was unceremoniously dropped from the colours with the predominantly red jerseys featuring a thick white band to represent the two countries involved.

Blue is the colour: And a controversial one at that

For the tour to South Africa in 1910, the Scots were well and truly back in the fold and the jerseys reflected this, switching to all blue for the first time. They were in fact retained until the switch to all red in 1950, but that’s only half the story.

During the 1930 tour to New Zealand and Australia, the blue shirts caused even more controversy. This was now becoming the Lions customary colour after donning them in South Africa in 1910, Argentina that same year, South Africa in 1924 and Argentina again in 1927. But it was 1930’s meeting with the All Blacks that things got a little controversial.

The British Lions before playing the 4th. match v. Argentina during their second tour to the country in 1927. [Image: Getty].

As we know, when there’s a kit clash in rugby it’s down to the home team to change. This led to the All Blacks donning an all-white kit for the first time in their history, much to their displeasure. The All Whites doesn’t quite have the same ring to it does it?

It was also on this 1930 tour that a delegation led by Irish lock George Beamish made their displeasure known as to the lack of green in the strip, with all the other nations’ colours represented. A green flash to the sock was added which became the green turnover in 1938 – it’s remained to this day. This tour was also the last time the dark blue shirts were seen.

It’s also during this era that the term the Lions was coined, with the lions themselves returning to the badge in 1930. The 1936 tour to Argentina saw the four-quartered badge return to the jersey – an important addition that remains to this day.

Now back to today and the matter of South Africa

So, it’s not always been as simple and straightforward as what we have today, but we’re glad we’ve settled on our colours now – it’s such an important part of what it means to be a Lion. For many of the players this year, pulling on those famous jerseys could be the defining moment of their careers. We can’t wait to see the squad in the 2021 version when the tour kicks off soon. We hope you’ve got yours and will be wearing it with pride this summer. And all that’s left to say is good luck to the cream of the rugby crop in South Africa.



Writer and expert