Black, Black, Black.
At the first Annual General Meeting of the NZRFU, held on 27 April 1893, “It was resolved that the New Zealand Representative colours should be Black Jersey with Silver Fernleaf, Black Cap with Silver Monogram, White Knickerbockers and Black Stockings, on the motion of Mr Ellison (later that season to captain the first official New Zealand side), seconded by Mr King.” This article looks at some of the changes that have occurred in the All Blacks’ playing and leisure kit since.
Why Ellison opted for a black jersey remains one of the intriguing questions in New Zealand rugby history. The 1888/89 “Natives”, for whom Ellison was one of the most prominent players on their long tour, also played in black and that may be why Ellison made his choice. The next question of course is, why did the “Natives” choose black?
The most likely explanation for the black jersey we have heard came from a member of the Ellison family. The use of the silver fern as the New Zealand rugby emblem arises from two Maori proverbs: “When one warrior dies another arises” or “Mate atu he toa ara mai he toa” and “When one fern dies another arises” or “Mate atu he tetakura ara mai he tetakura” (marvellously appropriate for a game that is all about support play). The silver fern is significant, with black chosen for the jersey and cap as the colour that would best emphasise the fern.
The Native team organizers may have had a much more pragmatic reason for choosing black. They were to tour Britain, playing England (white), Wales (red) and Ireland (green). Having black jerseys avoided a colour clash.
The first New Zealand teams played in gear as described in Ellison’s motion. The first change to the playing kit, and a very major one, seems to have occurred in 1901 when the white knickerbockers/shorts were discarded in favour of black. The reason is not known but a guess is that it was easier to launder black rather than white gear. No one knew it at the time but the change to black shorts was hugely significant, for it created the situation from which the “All Black” story developed.
Numbered jerseys were certainly worn from 1901, perhaps from even earlier but there are precious few action photos from those years to confirm. The more or less collarless jersey, sometimes with a linen yoke, sometimes just a strip of leather around lace holes lasted until 1907. The All Blacks that year lightened up, with a white collar on the jersey and one white band on the socks.
The 1920 All Black team photo suggests the side was issued with second hand jerseys, some black, some grey. The jersey badge now was embellished with an “N Z” above and below the fern and the socks had a second white band. The New Zealand Army team in Britain the previous year had also played in socks with two white bands, as had some wartime Army combinations.
The fern with accompanying “N Z” stayed until 1925, being worn that season both on tour to Australia and in the one off match against New South Wales in Auckland.
The 1924-5 “Invincibles” before their tour to Britain were photographed both individually and as a team in the “N Z” jerseys. But on tour they seem to have had two sets of jerseys, with the fern set at different angles, and without the letters “NZ”.
The 1928 All Blacks in South Africa wore socks with two white bands when their team photo was taken in Wellington before departure. But in South Africa their socks had just one band. Meanwhile, back in New Zealand the “best of the rest” All Blacks were playing New South Wales, in socks with two bands.The minor variances in the twenties between what was worn in New Zealand and overseas rather suggests that some playing gear was supplied offshore and when delivered turned out to be not quite as expected.
THE HALF BLACKS
The British Isles, playing in dark blue, toured in 1930. To avoid a clash the All Blacks played in the usual black shorts and socks but with a white jersey with a black shield bearing a white fern on the left breast.
There were few, if any, obvious changes of consequence to the All Black playing kit for the next 50 years. Except that against Scotland in test matches in New Zealand the white jersey had a black collar and a black fern embroidered onto the jersey. By the 1980s the silver fern emblem had become, mostly because of All Black successes, a highly marketable emblem. To guard against commercial exploitation the NZRFU, with Andy Haden as marketing adviser, in 1986 copyrighted a stylised version of the fern over the words “NEW ZEALAND ALL BLACKS”.
The next change to the jersey came in 1993 when the manufacturer’s “CCC” logo appeared on the right breast. The then NZRFU President, ex All Black lan Clarke, spoke against the addition but his seemed to be the only official voice raised in protest.
The Canterbury logo stayed on the right for just one season, then moved to the centre of the jersey to make room for another sponsor’s label, a predominantly red “Steinlager” flash. In this period labelling, though still relatively unobtrusive, spread to the shorts which featured the silver fern plus the manufacturer’s and sponsor’s logos.
During 1999 drastic changes occurred, with adidas taking over the supplier’s role from Canterbury. Main change to the jersey was a switch to a black “Chinese” collar, smaller than the conventional. The Steinlager logo disappeared, with an adidas logo now featuring on the right breast. The fern was unchanged. Both logos appear on the shorts. The socks, unsurprisingly in view of the three stripes that traditionally appear on adidas products, were given a third white band and, from 2000, bore the adidas logo as well. A disconcerting feature in 2000 was a pattern of large white ferns appearing through the black jersey.
Note. The NZRU advise that the white pattern seen in 2000 was in fact the black grip-dot pattern used in the jersey. They were visible because the grip-dots were in a glossy black material and so appeared to be of a lighter hue than the black jersey when seen at a particular angle in some conditions e g under photographer’s spotlights or on enhanced light television cameras. In 2001 the grip-dot pattern was produced in a matt material which solved the reflection problem.
In 2003 the All Blacks, and some other teams at the World Cup, adopted a body hugging style jersey, though not all players in those sides wore them.
CAPS, BLAZERS, TIES.
Caps were very much part of the early New Zealand sporting scene. The first New Zealand team, which toured Australia in 1884, were, with one exception, wearing caps for their team photo. Because there was then no New Zealand Union they were presumably club or provincial caps. At least some players from this team did receive All Black caps dated “1884”, but these appear to have been issued in the 1920s. The page 1 photo of the 1893 team shows them to be wearing dated caps, with an intertwined “NZ”. The supplier was J A Cooper, 166 Queen St, Auckland. Most early New Zealand teams seem to have been supplied with either caps or boaters with a fern on the hatband, but by 1924/5 the boaters had been replaced by Homburgs. Caps continued to be awarded until the late 1930s, and were reintroduced for the NZRFU Centenary in 1992, and for particular occasions since.
Though three of the 1905/6 All Blacks were perhaps the first All Blacks to be photographed in blazers it was not until the 1913 tour to the USA and Canada that a team was photographed wearing blazers. Possibly the blazers were mainly for casual wear, for some at least of the early blazers were very lightweight garments. Though the pre 1913 teams do not seem to have been issued with blazers members of those teams, presumably some years later, certainly did acquire All Black blazers.
It is assumed that past New Zealand representatives were given the opportunity to acquire caps and blazers, and some did so. A number of these garments were supplied by Hornigs Ltd of Wellington. That firm’s principal W F Hornig, the Manager of the 1928 All Blacks in South Africa, had a long involvement with both the Oriental club and Wellington Union as well as serving on the NZRFU management committee 1923-28. The retrospective outfitting may well then have occurred in the 1920s.
Players seemed to wear their own ties in early All Black team photos. It was not until the 1924/5 Tour of the United Kingdom that a team tie seems to be worn, by some members at least. Ties issued for a particular tour came some years later.
Changes to the New Zealand playing gear have been numerous but, apart from the switch to black shorts, essentially minor, not altering the basic All Black concept. Certainly there will be more changes but, such is the standing of the black uniform, any changes are unlikely to be substantial.
Author: Bob Luxford 2003