The Polo Shirt: Or is it?
Polos are a staple part of every man’s wardrobe—we love their durability, comfort, flexibility, and sharp lines. But where do they come from? It sounds athletic, but you’re more likely to see one in an office than on a horse…
Actually, the polo was one of the very first fashion innovations designed by and for world-class professional athletes. Up through the early 20th century, most champion athletes wore a variation of the casual gentleman’s wardrobe. Even when a gentleman removed his jacket for competition, he still had to contend with long sleeves, stiff collars, high necklines, tightly-woven fabric, and relatively short tails which had been designed for casual wear and could come untucked during vigorous activity.
But as weaving technology improved and fabric preparation processes became more sophisticated, one famous athlete decided that he’d had enough. In 1926, the seven-time Grand Slam winning tennis champion René Lacoste got tired of constantly rolling up his sleeves in the middle of a tournament, and so he designed a new shirt just for tennis players. Each component part of his new design was carefully thought through for:
- Durability and breathability (new jersey knit piqué cotton for the body)
- Protection (a thicker piqué collar could be turned up to protect the neck from sunburn)
- Flexibility (the short sleeves never had to be rolled up)
- Comfort (the short placket opened up, loosening the uncomfortably restrictive collar)
- Security (the longer tails minimized wardrobe malfunctions)
René Lacoste Invents The Polos
Lacoste debuted his new design at the 1926 U.S. Open, which he won, and soon made his revolutionary design distinctive by pairing it with his nickname logo “The Crocodile” emblazoned on the breast.
He retired from tennis in 1933 and went on to co-found an athletic clothing company that produced his new-style tennis shirt commercially, both for serious athletes and for more casual gentlemen’s wear.
Actual polo players, who had previously worn heavy long-sleeved Oxford-cloth shirts, quickly adopted Lacoste’s innovation, adding a button to each side of the collar to prevent it from flapping when the horses moved at high speed.
High Fashion & Ralph Lauren
By the 1950s, the terms “polo shirt” and “tennis shirt” were used interchangeably, but designer Ralph Lauren tipped the scales in 1972 with the launch of his line Polo, which turned athletic function into high fashion
It was a smart move for Lauren because he used actual polo players as models—retaining the strong association between sexy polo designs and sexy athleticism—and because he linked his fashion line to the elite “King’s Sport” played by royals around the world.
And that’s it…how we got the modern polo, why some of them have tiny crocodiles, why others have tiny polo logos, why Duchess Kate and Meghan Markle love to look at them, and why some polos have those peculiar little collar buttons…Who knew?
But, damn, does it look good.