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A Brief History of the Polo Shirt

  • Time: 2017-11-10
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Despite the name by which it is now known, the polo shirt did not emerge from the “sport of kings” but from the game of tennis.
In its early days, tennis had a touch of aristocratic flare and was played in a get-up known as “tennis whites” — flannel trousers, a dress shirt (with sleeves rolled up), and even a tie. Thick, heavy, hot, and cumbersome, these garments obviously didn’t lend themselves well to playing an active, outdoor sport.
Seven-time Grand Slam winner René Lacoste decided to do something about this issue, creating his own ideal tennis shirt. Made of a comfortable, breathable “jersey petit piqué” cotton, the white short-sleeved shirt eschewed buttons all the way down for a placket of three up top, and included a soft, unstarched collar that was still stiff enough to flip up to protect his neck from the sun. The flexible, lightweight shirt also had a longer tail in the back to keep it tucked into René’s trousers.
Lacoste debuted the shirt at the 1926 U.S. Open — which he won in both comfort and style. The following year, Lacoste, who was nicknamed “the Crocodile,” adhered the now famous reptilian logo to the breast of the shirt. And in 1933, the retired player began to manufacture his garment for the masses.
The “tennis shirt” caught on with other kinds of sportsmen, particularly polo players. These athletes had developed their own “polo shirt” — the Oxford button-down (the buttons on the collar were designed to keep it from flapping in your face as you galloped about the field) — decades prior. But Lacoste’s short-sleeve garment proved even more suitable to the game, and was so widely adopted that even tennis players began to refer to it as a “polo shirt.”
dwight eisenhower playing golf wearing polo and baseball cap
The popularity of the polo was given a big boost when President Eisenhower was seeing wearing one. Golf courses began changing their dress codes to allow for polos on the course.
In the 1950s, Lacoste began to offer the shirt, formerly only available in white, in a wider range of colors and brought the polo to America. It soon won widespread adoption by discerning sportsmen, particularly golfers, and then moved into the realm of everyday casual wear. The 50s also saw the rise of a competitor to Lacoste; fellow tennis champion Fred Perry introduced polos that had his soon-to-be iconic laurel wreath logo stitched instead of ironed on, and were adopted by English scooter-riding mods.
An even fiercer competitor to Lacoste’s polo dominance emerged in the 1970s. Designer Ralph Lauren named his line of WASP-y casual wear “Polo,” and a central piece of this collection consisted of, appropriately enough, polo shirts. As Lacoste and Lauren battled it out for dominance, the polo gained even more popularity, and became associated with the “preppy” look of the 1980s.
The polo shirt began to lose some of its cache in the 1990s, as it became the go-to get-up for casual Fridays, and corporations made it the actual uniform for workers ranging from customer service reps to waiters.
Still, the polo has maintained its staying power, and continues to be worn by everyone from U.S. presidents on the golf course to rap moguls on stage.
It should continue to be a mainstay in your everyday wardrobe too, as long as you wear it with style.

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