Recognition of women’s rugby and soccer is on the rise, but there’s still a way to go. Ill-fitting sportswear has affected players and performance, and now the players themselves are revolutionising women’s kit
Access to sport for women and girls has made huge strides in terms of media exposure, participation and engagement in recent decades. While there are still necessary improvements to come in terms of equality of opportunity, progress is being made — particularly when it comes to kit.
“You look back at under-18 pics and the jerseys were massive, so they were probably leftover men’s kit,” says Anna Caplice, Ireland and Gloucester-Hartpury rugby player who recently retired from international rugby. “We were absolutely swimming in them. It was very much the norm back then and not questioned too much.”
Women’s soccer faced the same problem. “Growing up in high school, we were given the boys’ old kit and it was massive. It didn’t fit,” says Grace Vella, who came up against this in varying degrees during her playing career, from home club Skem Athletic, through to Liverpool and Manchester City.
If it were simply a matter of appearance, it’s likely that players wouldn’t react. “As a female athlete,” explains Caplice “you feel so grateful for everything you get. You just get on with it, not wanting to rock the boat, not wanting to upset anyone providing you with kit.”
The repercussions of ill-fitting gear are more than skin-deep for players. For Caplice, the too-big men’s jerseys clearly impacted performance on the pitch. “When the jerseys started to become skin-tight, it made a big difference in tackling — I remember breaking the line so many times and being pulled back by the jersey. It was like a flag behind you, making you easy to tackle. I got so frustrated. They ordered underage boy sizes, but they were still too big for us.”
For Stefania Evans, founder of Ruggette RFC, mismatched kit triggered a confidence crisis, and she acutely felt the contradiction of rugby: how it was a sport that embraced bodies of every shape and size but only had kit that fitted a narrow range of bodies.
“It sounds silly now, but it was just one triggering thing [in] the greater experience of something being wrong with my body. Kit purchasing was always really stressful. The only thing available at the time was men’s kit with men’s sizing.
“It wasn’t created for females in general, and definitely not for women with hips and thighs. Smaller women on the team had the experience of wearing boys’ kit and being like ‘I’m wearing boys XXS ‘cause I’m so small’. I was going the other way.”
It’s undeniable that men in sport, whether international professionals or someone playing a weekly five-a-side, are amply catered for by brands. But the same isn’t true for women — which is why players themselves have started filling a gap in the market.
According to Evans, the decision to create Ruggette RFC was a “no-brainer” in light of her experiences playing rugby throughout her teens and 20s: “If millions of women are playing worldwide year on year, why is no one making a kit for them to wear?”
Similarly, following her time in college, Vella set up Miss Kick from her mum’s kitchen table. “The best way to start was selling T-shirts. I used a heat press from my mum’s kitchen — from there, it evolved to the full training kit it has today”, she says.
There were common threads across both sports, including struggling with garments that were big in all the wrong places, and shorts that didn’t accommodate women’s hips.
In the past with Ireland kit, you’d have to order an “XS T-shirt and large bottoms”, says Caplice, “which makes absolutely no sense. We’d have obviously wider hips than them, so hips would be really narrow, and legs would be really baggy.”
This was a ubiquitous problem in rugby, noticed Evans, so when doing market research for Ruggette RFC she asked: “‘If I want something to fit me correctly, what would I want?’ I took a notebook everywhere I went with rugby; I’d talk to people and ask ‘Are these your favourite rugby shorts? What would you change about them?’ I had a list of questions and a tape measure. I wanted to get measurements from as many women as I could, in every single size.
“Shorts in rugby have to fit both the smallest winger and the fullback, who are not going to have the same body composition as a prop”, explains Evans. “I wanted to solve problems accurately, but I had to get my own data.
“I felt really strongly about how buying a kit made me feel. I wanted to make sure no one else felt that. For each Ruggette size, there’s at least 100 measurements. It was made specifically for the average size of someone of your gender, playing the same sport as you do, wearing the same size you do and who has provided feedback — where they want it to hit on their leg, the average in-seam, where they want the waist to go, the widest part of the hip. You’re gonna have a lot more in common with people who designed that garment than other shorts.”
In terms of appearance, choice is an important factor too. “Not everyone wants the same aesthetic,” says Evans. “In Ruggette, there’s the femme fit, and the tomboy fit, with the former being curvier and shorter, while the latter is longer on the thighs, sits lower on the body and is a straighter leg.” Evans wants to give players the “opportunity to buy something that makes them feel like ‘this is what I want to wear to feel my best.’”
Likewise, Miss Kick offers players ‘standard’, which is a looser fit and ‘fitted’, which uses Miss Kick printed tape to create a more sculpted shape around the chest and hips.
Ultimately Vella wanted to provide, through a kit that fit, what she didn’t have growing up — the feeling that soccer belonged to women and girls as much as it did to men and boys.
Irish captain and Arsenal player Katie McCabe agrees. “For me, when I was growing up, there was never anything like this — it’s a community most importantly. It gives girls a place to feel comfortable,” she said on the announcement of her Miss Kick ambassadorship.
As entrepreneurs and former players, both Vella and Evans feel women’s sporting experiences have been overlooked and undervalued, leading to the dearth of options.
Football for women or girls “was seen as an afterthought,” says Vella, “something that boys do. But now industries are starting to wake up to how girls and women need different clothes and training kit. “Hopefully the continued research and development will lead to us getting what we need and deserve.”
Things have changed significantly since Caplice first started playing, but there’s still more to be done, she says. “It’s good to see things are starting to change, and people are pushing back slightly. If we were grateful forever, things would never change.”