The History of the Polo Shirt - Harvey Ltd

The History of the Polo Shirt

From an array of colorful fashion statements to frat boy staples and school uniforms, the polo shirt has been possibly the most influential aspect of the sport. Everyone from James Bond to Steve Mcqueen, and even the “Wolf of Wall Street”, have worn the shirts. However, the polo shirt and the sport of polo actually have little in common. In fact, the history of the polo shirt centers on three individuals: an American heritage haberdasher (John E Brooks), a dashing French sportsman (René Lacosteand a visionary menswear tycoon (Ralph Lauren).

What does the polo shirt have to do with polo?

Originally, there was no set polo uniform for the sport of polo. But players did wear numbers on their backs, identifying their position on the field. Men wore trousers and a typical white button-down shirt as a top to participate in matches. So, Indian polo players wore thick, long-sleeve cotton shirts, but they soon became dissatisfied with the way their collars flipped upwards during matches and thus attached buttons to make the collars feel less suffocating.

John E Brooks

John E Brooks was the grandson of Henry Sands Brooks, who founded the Brooks Brothers company in 1818 with a stated goal “to make and deal only in merchandise of the finest quality, to sell it at a fair profit and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise” (closely echoing a Japanese philosophy known as ‘sampo yoshi’ — or ‘all good in three directions’ — where the craftsman, merchant and buyer all benefit).

On a trip to England in the final years of the 19th century, John E Brooks noticed that polo players had taken to having buttons sewn on the collars of their shirts to avoid the tips flapping in their faces during game play. Returning home to the US, Brooks imitated the innovation and started manufacturing shirts with button-down collars (which were also among the first attached-collar shirts sold in the States). He debuted his creation in 1896, calling it “the first button-down polo shirt”. He even had the name patented.

René Lacoste

Tennis players, just like polo players, had always worn long-sleeved button-up shirts, but in their case with the sleeves rolled up. The attire was incredibly uncomfortable as the sleeves would roll down, quite inconvenient for a sport with a racquet. René Lacoste (whose moniker was “Le Crocodile”) was a French seven-time Grand Slam tennis player who was most annoyed with his sportswear. He designed the first white, short-sleeved, loosely-knit piqué cotton shirt with a collar and a buttoned placket as a result of his frustration. He first wore the shirt in the 1926 U.S. Open where he took home a gold medal in the Men’s Singles category. 

In the early ’30s, as he eased into retirement, Lacoste was approached by André Gillier, owner of France’s leading knitwear manufacturer, who proposed that the two partner to sell reproductions of this groundbreaking garment. In 1933, La Chemise Lacoste was founded, adopting as its logo the crocodile — a nickname Lacoste had picked up thanks to winning a bet with another player (the prize being a lavish croc-hide suitcase) and due to his snappy tenacity in competition. Placing the reptilian motif prominently on the shirt’s left breast, Lacoste became one of the first brands, perhaps the first brand, to emblazon a label on the outside of a garment.

While this partnership wasn’t the first to commercialize the knitted polo shirt, with the likes of John Smedley helping to advance the technology, Lacoste’s tennis shirt was immensely popular in Europe and beyond, quickly becoming a potent symbol of sporty, leisure-class élan. American preppies were enthusiastic adopters, and from the 1950s, Lacoste tennis shirts were produced and sold under license in the United States by the manufacturer Izod. Initially cut in piqué cotton as per the French originals, when synthetic cloth became popular toward the end of the 1960s, Izod began making its Lacoste shorts from polyester.

Ralph Lauren

Polyester, a sales assistant explained to one repeat customer at a New York department store, wouldn’t fade or gain a patina of wear. The problem was, that particular customer — a young designer named Ralph Lauren, who in 1967 had launched a clothing brand he called Polo —lovedthe way the old cotton Izod Lacoste shirts aged. “I like things that are worn,” Lauren explained in his self-titled 2011 coffee-table monograph, published by Rizzoli. “I have old plaid and denim shirts full of holes and tears. They’ve been patched and mended, they’re falling apart, but I’m not throwing them away. Every time I wear one, I love the way it feels. It’s like an old pick-up truck that’s stood by you,” he remarked.

So it was that, knowing they could do better, Lauren and his team set out to create the Platonic ideal of a piqué knit shirt. Launched in 1972, and marketed early on with the slogan “It gets better with age,” the Ralph Lauren ‘mesh’ shirt — available in a rainbow of colors, carrying the iconic pony logo on its chest — has been the brand’s most popular product for nearly five decades.

Thanks to Ralph Lauren, not only did polo shirts stand for the sport, but also a certain affluence and status. Successful men and women would wear shirts on television and magazine covers. Aspiring to the same lifestyle, it became a staple for a wide range of wardrobes. Even rappers in the ‘80s and ‘90s took the polo shirts and made them their own.

As we know, the polo shirt is now worn on far more occasions than just sports. Today, the former athleisure shirt can be found in a wide variety of styles and colors and is considered as one of the most popular garments in the world. No wonder! After all, it perfectly bridges the gap between the T-shirt and the classic button-down shirt. It is comfortable, casual and smart at the same time. And in terms of style, the polo shirt is a true all-rounder – whether you wear it to the office with chinos, to the beach with shorts or on the after-work scene with sweatpants.

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