Have you ever wondered where the polo shirt came from? This is a shirt style that has lasted almost a century with every design change. The design of the original 1926 shirt is similar to almost every polo, sport, and golf shirt produced today.
The Lacoste Tennis Shirt
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, tennis players ordinarily wore “tennis whites” consisting of long-sleeved white button-up shirts (worn with the sleeves rolled up), flannel trousers, and ties. This attire presented problems for ease of play and comfort.
René Lacoste, the French seven-time Grand Slam tennis champion, felt that the stiff tennis attire was too cumbersome and uncomfortable. He designed a white, short-sleeved, loosely-knit piqué cotton shirt with an unstarched, flat, protruding collar, a buttoned placket, and a shirttail longer in the back than in front which he first wore at the 1926 U.S. Open championship. Beginning in 1927, Lacoste placed a crocodile emblem on the left breast of his shirts, as the American press had begun to refer to him as “The Crocodile”.
In 1933, after retiring from professional tennis, Lacoste teamed up with a friend who was a clothing merchandiser. Together they marketed their shirts in Europe and North America and formed the company, Chemise Lacoste. They began selling their shirts, which included the small embroidered crocodile logo on the left breast.
Polo and Other Sports
Before Lacoste’s 1933 mass-marketing of his tennis shirt, polo players wore thick long-sleeve shirts made of Oxford-cloth cotton. This shirt was the first to have a buttoned-down collar, which polo players invented in the late 19th century to keep their collars from flapping in the wind. Still, like early tennis clothing, those clothes presented a discomfort on the field, and when polo players became aware of Lacoste’s invention in the 1930s they readily adopted it for use in polo.
In 1920, Lewis Lacey, a Canadian-born haberdasher, and polo player began producing a shirt that was embroidered with the logo of a polo player. The term polo shirt, which previously had referred only to the long-sleeved buttoned-down shirts traditionally used in polo, soon became a universal moniker for the tennis shirt; no later than the 1950s, it was in common usage in the U.S. to describe the shirt most commonly thought of as part of formal tennis attire. Indeed, tennis players often would refer to their shirt as a “polo shirt,” notwithstanding the fact that their sport had used it before polo did.
In 1972, Ralph Lauren included his “polo shirt” as a prominent part of his original line called Polo, thereby helping to further its already widespread popularity. As he desired to project a certain “WASPishness” in his clothes, he prominently included this attire complete with a logo reminiscent of Lacoste’s crocodile emblem, depicting a polo player and pony. This worked well as a marketing tool, and due to the immense popularity of Lauren’s clothing, a majority of English-speaking westerners began to refer to Lacoste’s tennis shirt as a “polo shirt”.
Now: The polo shirt has moved from the tennis court to the boardroom.
Today the polo style shirt is the most versatile corporate apparel available. Worn as short or long sleeve, and constructed in cotton, cotton blend and new performance polos offer reliable snag resistant durability in cool high-tech fabrics.
From its initial introduction in 1926, the polo shirt has endured and evolved. Polo shirts are now widely used in other sports such as golf but have also become a staple garment in the non-sporting world commonly chosen for school uniforms, retail uniforms, hospitality uniforms and tradesmen’s uniforms. Rene Lacoste’s original objective to design a comfortable and practical shirt for tennis has proved to have far reaching and long lasting impact on our fashion and apparel industries.