Oi Polloi

Glossary : The Polo Shirt

Published: Fri May 24 2013

This was originally posted way back in November 2010, but it’s such a gem that we thought it was only right to let it see the light of day once again.

When considering the design of polo shirt 1.0, René’s brief was simple – to come up with a solution to the outdated and unnecessarily formal outfit in which to play tennis… 

In the early part of last century, tennis players complemented their fetching flannel kecks with a rather traditional shirt and tie combo. This came from the game having been originally the preserve of high society, going all the way back to the earliest form of tennis being a racquet-less game called ‘jeu de paume’ in which players used their hands to hit the ball. It was played at the Royal Court of France by the aristocracy as far back as the renaissance, and as a result the emphasis was on elegance rather than comfort. As tennis became more competitive the need for an edge became a necessity. Traditional tennis-wear was fine for afternoon tea, but not for lolloping about in the sunshine with a racquet in your hand. So René used his status as world number one and came up with something that fitted his requirements perfectly.

The shape and look were of great importance and he ticked these proverbial boxes with a nod towards a traditional collar and buttons that stopped at the chest. Anything too radical would have upset the establishment… and we can’t be having that can we? He also decided to out-mode the trend for rolling ones sleeves up on court, by simply making his new design short sleeved. The key to the success of Lacoste’s design though was the use of technology, albeit the technology invented 100 years earlier in the world’s foremost cotton weaving hotbed – the North West of England. Pique cotton weaving was first practised in the mills of Lancashire in the early 1800s. The style of weaving lent itself to durability – and more importantly – breathability, a quality which was imperative if Lacoste’s design was to be favoured over the more formal cotton shirt. To give his new shirts a distinctive mark it was suggested to Lacoste that he have a small alligator added onto the chest, which was a reference to the nickname given to him by the American press. There’s probably a joke in there somewhere about him being a snappy dresser, but the truth is his nickname related back to a story involving a bet with a team-mate. The winner of this bet would receive a crocodile skin bag… Those crazy Frenchies eh?

Soon after Lacoste had premièred his new shirts at the US Open of 1926, other sportsmen began to ape the Lacoste tennis shirt and replace their own rather traditional outfits. The most notable of these sports is the rather posh pursuit of polo. Previous to adopting, then slightly altering the Lacoste tennis shirt, polo players would favour button down Brooks Brothers shirts to save their collar from flapping in the wind. They probably looked well smart, but just as Lacoste found with tennis, the polo players of the day wanted something less restrictive that would contribute to making them play sport better. The nature of the pique woven cotton offered much more comfort. In particular, the fabric gave players the opportunity to turn up their collar to avoid getting sunburnt, a look still sometimes sported by preppy American types and English wideboys.

You may think the story of the polo shirt simply rolled on from there but you’d be wrong. You see, not content with having given the world pique cotton, the North West of England went and stuck it’s big nose in again…
Fred Perry was born in the working class Portwood area of Stockport in May 1909. It was an unlikely beginning for someone who would go on to become the best tennis player the UK has seen so far. His early life was in contrast to his later achievements, winning Wimbledon three times and retiring to Hollywood where he worked his way through an impressive number of movie star liaisons. Echoing the work of René Lacoste, Perry was approached shortly after World War Two by an Austrian footballer called Tibby Wegner who had an idea which required his expertise as a top sportsman. After knocking around a few ideas, eventually what we now know as the sweatband was born. Not content with that, they then decided they’d try and outdo René Lacoste’s creation. They tested different fabrics, but ended up choosing the same cotton pique woven material and instead chose to improve the design of Lacoste by adding a logo that was stitched into the fabric, rather than ironed on, as Lacoste’s alligator was. They also decided contrasting coloured stripes would look smart on the collar and cuffs. With Perry’s reputation as the David Beckham of the 1930’s he provided the perfect endorsement for the new tennis shirt and helped to establish a genuine challenge to Lacoste’s domination up to that point.

What we’re really concerned with though is how

These innovative items of sporting excellence made the leap from sport to fashion. In the case of both Perry and Lacoste, the economic boom and ensuing new found sense of identity fueled the increase in popularity of the polo shirt, especially amongst the fashion conscious teenagers of the day. In 1951 Lacoste agreed a deal to market their polo shirts in the US under the banner of Izod Lacoste. Soon after, the US president, Dwight Eisenhower decided he’d wear a Lacoste polo while playing golf. When the most powerful bloke in the western world is photographed wearing your clothes, you know you’ve pretty much made it. The exposure it received pretty much cemented the popularity of the Lacoste polo in the USA.

The adoption of the tennis shirt by polo players obviously led to Lacoste’s early design becoming more widely known as a polo shirt but it wasn’t until a New Yorker by the name of Ralph Rueben Lifschitz had his say on the matter that the polo shirt really became the polo shirt. Having set up Ralph Lauren in 1967, he launched his own take on the polo in 1972, releasing it in 24 colours, to instant acclaim. The Ralph Lauren polo shirt went on to rival the Lacoste version in the US, and proved popular with Ivy League students.
Meanwhile, back in the UK the next chapter in the life of the polo shirt was taking an altogether different direction. Having been adopted by the original mods of the 1950s, Fred Perry polos began to be produced in colours other than the original white, such was the demand from this ever growing tribe of youngsters. Once again, the sporty but formal look of the polo shirt was it’s attraction, with mods seeing it as a utility garment that could be worn casually in the daytime or occasionally under suit of an evening. As time went by some mods shape-shifted or moved on and mingled with the Jamaican rudeboy movement but while they broadened their music taste, changed their haircuts and modified their clothing slightly, the popularity of the Fred Perry polo shirt somehow remained. As a portion of rudeboys gradually morphed into original skinheads the Fred Perry polo shirt continued to be held in high regard.

Towards the end of the 1970s, with the skinhead ethos evolving, the Fred Perry polo was adopted by what is seen by most as the earliest incarnation of football casuals. Once again that North West of England theme reared it’s head, as the cities of Liverpool and in particular Manchester became such a hotbed for the sporting of the now ubiquitous laurel logo, that outsiders took to calling the patrons of this look “Perries”. Fast forward a few short years and the casual movement was in full flow, with Liverpudlians (and, let’s be fair, Mancs) taking full advantage of the rather trusting shopkeepers of Europe as they followed their trailblazing team of footballers across the continent. The surge in popularity of the Adidas training shoe as a result of this is well documented, but into the mix also came a resurgence for the Lacoste polo shirt due to it’s popularity and no doubt snatchability in mainland Europe.
Since the early 1980s the popularity of sportswear as fashion in general has grown and as such the polo shirt today has never been more popular – and rightly so. Rarely has an item of clothing been so widely cherished in such diverse sections of society. The polo shirt has never really gone out of fashion. René, Ralph and Fred may sound like Luxembourg’s entry to the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest but the truth is these three names represent the most prominent brands in the history of the polo shirt and each of the people behind these brands are heavily responsible for perhaps the most versatile item of clothing ever invented.

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