Tiebreaker: The Story of the Polo Shirt

Close-up of a pile of polo shirts
Image credit: Lena Kudryavtseva on Unsplash

The polo shirt exists at something of a crossroads in menswear. It’s a bridge between smart and casual, between modern street and old-school chic, and between practical sportswear and just-for-the-look leisurewear. 

It seems appropriate for a garment that embodies quite so many sartorial intersections to have its invention mark a major turning point in the way people dress. Specifically, said turning point [and that will be very nearly the last road metaphor you’ll hear out of me; symbol-wise it’s something of a cul-de-sac] occurred in the sport’s world, although not in the game you might expect if you went just by the garment’s name.

Rather than from polo, the erroneously eponymous shirt came to us via tennis. The polo’s name resulted from its subsequent popularity among players of that sport, but it was a tennis ace who gifted the world the short-sleeved, three-buttoned, collared shirt. His name will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever laid eyes on his creation, although his reputation as an elite sportsman has long been overshadowed by the crocodile-labelled clothing line he created. 

René Lacoste first wore his signature shirt in 1927 at the US men’s championship. The shirt’s debut was a dramatic departure from what tennis players wore up to that point. Women played in blouses and long skirts, while men ran along the baseline in flannel trousers and long-sleeved button-ups. Given the context, there’s no mystery as to why Lacoste’s creation caught on once the initial shock wore off.

The original polo was made from a sturdy cotton known as jersey petit piqué, had a three-buttoned placket, and featured a soft, unstarched collar that was still firm enough to be turned up to protect a player’s neck from the sun. It also included a so-called tennis tail, which is to say a longer cut in the back that helped prevent it from untucking during play (The sports tradition of tucking in polos is still alive and well today, albeit principally among coaching staff, whose universal attire has become the polo tucked into khakis).

Clint Eastwood wearing a Lacoste polo shirt
Long-time Lacoste fan, Clint Eastwood
Image credit: Ur Cameras / Public domain

When Lacoste retired from professional tennis, he teamed up with André Gillier, France’s leading knitwear manufacturer, to bring his new shirt to the masses. His famous logo — now among the most regularly counterfeited labels in menswear — was designed by the artist Robert George as a reference to Lacoste’s nickname: the crocodile. It came from a sporting wager that he had won, the prize of which was a set of croc-skin luggage, although the name stuck thanks to Lacoste’s on-court tenacity that meant (as Lacoste himself put it) ‘never giving up [his] prey’.

Tennis players Pat Hughes and Fred Perry in polo shirts
Tennis star, Fred Perry (left)
Image credit: State Library of New South Wales / Public domain

In Lacoste’s wake, several other major figures have put their stamp on the polo. In 1952, fellow tennis star Fred Perry (in partnership with footballer-turned-businessman, Tibby Wegner) launched his own signature polo. Like Lacoste’s, it was initially only available in white and had a logo that alluded to a sporting triumph. Perry’s label featured a laurel wreath in reference to Wimbledon’s victory laurels — Perry himself had won three consecutive championships there and eight Grand Slam titles overall — and was first launched at the historic tournament.

Twenty years later, Ralph Lauren threw his hat in the ring. The Polo polo was a response to the widespread adoption of polyester by brands like Lacoste in the 1960s. While many consumers seemed to like that space-age synthetic fibres protected their shirts from fading and excessive wear, Lauren missed the patina acquired over time by the old piqué cotton variety. When his own take on the shirt arrived in 1972, it was marketed with the slogan: ‘It gets better with age’.

John F. Kennedy wearing a polo shirt
JFK in a casual polo
Image credit: thesmuggler / CC BY 2.0

The polo shirt’s popularity certainly hasn’t faded with age. As with so many great sporting garments, it quickly made its way into people’s everyday dress. By the 1950s and ’60s, even heads of state like Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy would wear them in their downtime. They have similarly been absorbed into the uniforms of many a subculture, including preps, skaters, mods, skinheads, and fans of Euro hip-hop and Northern Soul. The shirt’s simplicity, versatility, and comfort make it appeal to just about every kind of dresser and means that, as far as the polo’s longevity is concerned, we’re far from the end of the road [Hey, there was one more coming all along!]

Frank Sinatra wearing a polo shirt
Frank Sinatra
Image credit: kate gabrielle / CC BY 2.0

* In writing this piece, I’m especially indebted to Josh Sims for the historical details included in his excellent entry on polo shirts in Icons of Men’s Style.

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