One of the most iconic brands in world sport is the New Zealand rugby team’s ‘All Blacks’ jersey. The black jersey with silver fern leaf was adopted by the NZRU in 1893, but what remains a mystery is “Why black?”
written by Sean Fagan
The minutes of that meeting (16 April 1893) record that: “It was resolved that the New Zealand representative colours should be black jersey with silver fern leaf, black cap with silver monogram, white knickerbockers [shorts] and black stockings [socks] on the motion of Mr Ellison, seconded by Mr King.”
‘Mr Ellison’ was Thomas Rangiwahia Ellison – better known simply as Tom Ellison. Later in 1893 Ellison (a Maori) captained the first official New Zealand team on their visit to Australia.
Ellison had also been a member of the 1888/89 New Zealand ‘Natives’ team that played nine games at home, before embarking on an epic twelve-months long tour of Australia and Great Britain. Also known as the New Zealand Maori, the players wore an entirely black playing kit, with a silver fern badge.
It is surmised that it was the Natives team strip that influenced Ellison to make the suggestion that the NZRU adopt the same design.
Why the Natives team chose black as its jersey colour is still unknown. There is nothing in the years before the Natives team linking the New Zealand colony with the colour black.
The first New Zealand rugby team that went to Australia in 1884 wore a dark blue jersey. They too had a fern leaf badge – rather than white or silver, it was embroidered on the jersey in a gold colour.
Interestingly, the Natives team played their first match (against Hawke’s Bay) wearing “navy blue with silver fern leaf” (Hawke’s Bay Herald, 25 June 1888). The same newspaper noted two days earlier that the Natives team “will play in their tour uniforms”. The teams met again a week later, with the Natives again wearing their navy blue jerseys.
Apart from the change in the colour of the fern leaf badge, the New Zealand Natives jersey appears to have been the same as the 1884 New Zealand team.
However, the Natives then turned out in their third match (against Auckland) wearing “all black with silver fern” (Star, 9 July 1888; Otago Witness, 13 July 1888). Unfortunately, there is no known report explaining why the team’s sudden and late change of the tour jersey from dark blue to black.
The Evening Post reported in 1925 (15 June) that George Wynyard – member of the Natives team – had in recent conversation said: “The all black jersey was selected as being most suitable in colour to withstand the wet and sloppy playing fields which were likely to be experienced in England.”
A plausible explanation, yet few rugby clubs in Britain seemed to share the same concern when choosing their club’s colours. Perhaps the thinking was there was less likelihood of a black jersey clashing with other teams encountered on the tour.
The switch in colours though coincided with an outbreak of criticism of the Natives tour venture from rugby union authorities and newspapers. The late addition of ‘Pakeha’ (non-Maori New Zealander) players to the tour party changed the dynamics of how the team was viewed.
Questions about the team’s amateur status, and underlying hope’s by the promoters of making a financial profit, seemed to be of little concern when the team was all Maori players.
However, after the inclusion of other New Zealanders in the team, concerns and doubts were raised about how the Natives would be viewed by the English RFU, and if they were subsequently banned as ‘professionals’ that would reflect upon all of rugby in New Zealand, potentially destroying hopes of an official New Zealand team going to England.
After a month of debate over the issue the Otago Witness (20 July 1888) concluded: “If a New Zealand team is to go Home [England], well and good, but by all means let it be a thoroughly representative one and in that case it should be a team sent Home by the New Zealand unions and not a money-making venture…”
In the turmoil of questions and criticism about whether the Natives team was ‘representing’ New Zealand, the distinct possibility exists that, to end speculation as to the side’s official status, that the tour jersey was changed away from the dark blue of the 1884 New Zealand team to black.
Of course, while that may explain why the change in colour was made, it doesn’t address why black was preferred over any other colour. Wynyard’s explanation 36 years after the tour is all we have.
So the 1888/89 Natives team’s black jersey and silver fern was revived by Ellison at the 1893 NZRU meeting, and as a result of that decision, went on to become the national colour of all New Zealand sport and culture.
Yet was Ellison acting on his own initiative? Or had black already begun to assume patriotic significance for New Zealanders before the NZRU adopted the colour?
In February 1889, with news of Natives teams matches reaching New Zealanders no matter where they were, in San Francisco a number of ex-pats came together to form a rugby club. The Taranaki Herald carried a report from an American newspaper:
NEW ZEALAND FOOTBALL CLUB IN SAN FRANCISCO.
“Young New Zealanders are ‘great’ on the game of football; and wherever a number of them congregate a Club is sure to be formed. From a recent San Francisco paper we learn that a large meeting of football enthusiasts was held at the Baldwin Hotel by former residents of New Zealand for the purpose of organising a club to play that game. After some discussion, it was decided to name the association the ‘New Zealand Football Club’, and to play under the rugby rules. These allow the ball to be handled by the players. The uniform chosen will consist of a black jersey and knickerbockers. The season will be opened one week from Sunday next with a practice game.”
In choosing black were they simply replicating the Natives? Or had the Natives use of black in Australia and Britain led to an assumption that this was New Zealand’s national sporting colour? Perhaps they just chose black, and it is merely a coincidence…
Except that in Australia in April 1889 the Zealandia rugby club “consisting of New Zealanders resident in Sydney” was formed (The Evening Post, 29 April 1889): “A club has been formed in Sydney composed entirely of New Zealanders, the uniform being black with a silver fern-leaf on the breast. The club has entered for the senior championship.” The Observer adding (28 March 1891): “The colour picked for the Zealandia Football Club is black, with a silver fern leaf.” The club had sufficient footballers for two grades, and continued playing in Sydney competitions until at least 1893.
On 4 March 1890 (reported in the Star) the recently formed New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association announced its team for the upcoming NSW Championships in Sydney would be wearing: “The New Zealand team’s colours were fixed as black, with silver piping, with the Association’s monogram and fern leaf supports.”
On 26 March 1892 the Observer predicted the kit for the New Zealand athletes leaving to compete in The English Amateur Athletes meeting: “Our New Zealand representatives will, it is anticipated, compete (while at Home) in the New Zealand costume — black and silver, with silver fern worked on the left breast of the jersey— used when the New Zealand team competed in the New South Wales Championship.”
When Ellison and his New Zealand rugby team arrived in Sydney in late June 1893, their recently adopted all black jerseys with silver fern were seemingly of little surprise.
© Sean Fagan