The Polo Shirt
For the more than two thousand years that the genteel team-sport of polo appears in the historical record, various garments have been worn by its players. In the late 19th century, for example, some British players would wear long-sleeved, turn-down-collar, oxford cloth shirts. But apparently the collars of those shirts would flap up into the faces of the athletes during the fast-paced sport; so, eventually, the players started securing their collar-ears to their shirts by way of buttons. Then in 1896 American John E. Brooks, grandson of the founder of Brooks Brothers, took the idea of the button-down collar back across “the pond” to America and started selling them at the store as “polo shirts.” The shirts quickly became, and remain to this day, one of the cornerstones of the establishment. Today, button-down-collar oxford cloth shirts are still called “polo shirts,” even though they have long been retired from the polo fields and are instead being worn primarily by businessmen and academics. But for the most part, when a modern gentleman refers to a “polo shirt,” he is referring to the equally ubiquitous short-sleeved, cotton-knit (traditionally a piqué knit) shirt with a two- or three-button placket, a ribbed collar and sleeve-band, and an extended tail (to keep the shirt tucked in while engaged in active sport). This modern polo shirt was introduced to the tennis—not polo—world at the 1926 US Open tennis tournament by Jean René Lacoste (1904-1996). Lacoste walked onto the court at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York in his new, short-sleeved shirt; shocked both the sports and fashion worlds; then five days later walked off the court with the championship trophy in his hands and what would become a fashion icon on his back. In an era where fashion ruled over function, Lacoste’s insistence on comfort and practicality over form and tradition resonated with athletes in other sports—especially the sport of polo—which quickly abandoned its long-sleeved shirts with stiff, starched collars for the short-sleeved “tennis shirt,” so much so that the shirt would come to be called the “polo shirt” instead of the “tennis shirt.”
In 1933 Lacoste collaborated with his friend André Gillier, owner of a large French knitwear company of the day, to establish La Societe Chemise Lacoste (The Lacoste Shirt Company). Evidenced in its first catalog (1933), the firm produced the shirt design that Lacoste had first sported on the tennis court in 1926, as well as other shirts for sports such as sailing and golf, embroidering the company’s logo, a crocodile, onto each garment—thereby becoming the first company in recorded history to affix its logo on the outside of its garments. Then in 1951, the company decided to broaden its palette beyond classic tennis whites, adding a variety of colors. In 1967, American fashion designer Ralph Lauren established his fashion empire, “Polo Ralph Lauren”; and at its foundation were classic polo shirts, both the Brooks Brothers button-down-collar and Lacoste knit varieties.