The polo shirt is one of the most fundamental pieces of menswear. With beginnings on polo fields of the mid-19th century, the polo shirt has evolved from a formal piece of sports uniform to a ubiquitous, preppy sportswear classic. Like most garments, the design of the modern day polo shirt was spawned from utilitarian needs that trickled into mainstream fashion with the help of society’s most respected individuals.
But how did the polo shirt come to be? And why does the term ‘polo shirt’ evoke images of Ralph Lauren’s polo-player motif or Lacoste’s embroidered crocodile? Today, we’re answering those questions by unbuttoning the history of the polo shirt.
While the earliest known roots of polo reach back as far as 6th century BC, the modern form of the horseback sport can be traced back to the 19th Century India. British military men stationed in Manipur, a state in Northeast India, adopted polo from Indian natives and brought it back to the U.K. where it became synonymous with wealth, royalty, and the upper-class.
In addition to jodhpur pants and full-length riding boots, the original polo uniforms included a long-sleeved cotton shirt, similar to a dress shirt. To stop their shirt collars from flapping in the wind while they rallied around the polo field, players would fasten them down with pins or buttons. Inspired by this was John E. Brooks of the successful Brooks Brothers firm, who noticed the players’ improvisational collar solution while visiting England in the late 1800s. Upon his return to the U.S., Brooks introduced button-down collars onto all of his dress shirts, a feature that has become commonplace in modern-day shirting. Brooks Brothers introduced the first mass-marketed ‘polo shirt’ by debuting the ‘The Original Button-Down Polo Shirt’ in 1896.
Le Crocodile’s Révolution
Ironically, the polo shirt we know today was born from a completely different sport—tennis. Like polo, tennis ‘whites’ in the early 1900s featured a long-sleeved button-down shirt. Looking to improve the practicality of this design was French tennis star, Jean René Lacoste. Nicknamed ‘le Crocodile’ due to his agility and shot power, Lacoste won seven Grand Slam titles, making him one of the most sensational sportsmen of his era.
While most tennis stars wore a button-down shirt and tie, Lacoste went against the grain and introduced his own short sleeved, three button shirt, made from a lightweight, breathable pique cotton that improved freedom of movement on the court. Proud of his reptilian moniker, Lacoste had a crocodile embroidered onto the left breast of his tennis shirt, a piece that surprised spectators as he smashed his way to consecutive U.S. Open wins in 1926 and 1927. The first of its kind, Lacoste’s tennis shirt was the blueprint for the modern day polo shirt.
After retiring in the early 1930s, Lacoste was approached by the owner of a leading French knitwear manufacturer, André Gillier, who proposed that the two came together to sell reproductions of Lacoste’s knitted tennis shirt, complete with the infamous embroidered crocodile. In 1933, the pair founded La Chemise Lacoste. Now known simply as ‘Lacoste’, the brand is widely regarded as the first brand to produce clothes with clear, visible branding on the outside of the garment.
La Chemise Lacoste was not the first brand to popularise the knitted polo shirt. Independent makers and brands like John Smedley had already capitalized in on René Lacoste’s revolutionary design. But it was Lacoste’s formidable reputation and playful crocodile branding that made his tennis shirt so desirable.
In 1951, American manufacturer Izod gained a licensing agreement to produce and sell Lacoste shirts in the United States. Within a few years, knitted polo shirts had become an American essential. The soft tailored chemise blurred the boundaries between formal and leisure wear, worn anywhere from golf clubs to frat houses.
The knitted tennis shirt remained in fashion throughout the 1960s, resonating especially with ivy-leaguers who wore their Izod Lacoste shirts under their college sports jackets. Advancements in technology saw polyester rise in popularity and eventually replace knitted pique cotton in the mass-production of tennis shirts. This new fabric was less prone to fading, wearing, or bleeding in the wash, making it ideal for daily wear and sports use.
One person who didn’t favor the new polyester tennis shirts was Mr. Ralph Lauren. Then a young designer in the early stages of establishing his Polo brand, Ralph Lauren was open about his love for the patina of a well-loved garment, something that polyester couldn’t really offer. In a bid to produce the ideal knitted pique cotton tennis shirt of times-past, Ralph Lauren launched his iteration of the tennis shirt in 1972. Coming in 24 colors, Polo Ralph Lauren marketed the shirt with the tagline “it gets better with age”.
Despite the benefits of polyester, the Polo Ralph Lauren shirt overtook all others as the archetypal knitted tennis shirt. Emblazoned with the iconic polo-player embroidered motif, it wasn’t long before Polo Ralph Lauren’s knitted shirt became simply known as the polo shirt. The polo shirt has remained Polo Ralph Lauren’s most popular product for nearly fifty years.