After blue jeans and t-shirts, polo shirts could be one of the most popular pieces of apparel ever stitched together. Along with embroidered shirts, hats, jackets and accessories, polo shirts – whether made of cotton, polyester or high performance Dri-Tech fabrics – are among the most sought-after custom items at any custom clothing company.
But as popular as the polo shirt is, do you know its history?
Hint: It didn’t debut in 1972 when Ralph Lauren’s release of the “polo” shirt with his signature polo rider logo quickly established it as “a wardrobe staple of well-dressed men everywhere,” according to the designer’s website.
In fact, whether folded neatly or stylishly upturned, the buttoned V-neck, collared shirt actually has roots with another sport and another animal icon.
Think “le crocodile.”
It’s generally agreed that a “polo” shirt, also known as a golf shirt, a tennis shirt, even an English hunting shirt back in the 1920s, is a “a short-sleeved, pullover sport shirt, usually of cotton or cotton-like knit, with a round neckband or a turnover collar,” notes Reference.com. They also can be of cloth, wool, piqué cotton, silk and synthetic fibers.
Many credit French tennis champion René Lacoste as its creator. Like other male players of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lacoste disliked the game’s stiff long-sleeved, button-down shirts.
What if the fabric was loosely-knit piqué cotton, the sleeves were shortened, and the collar could be folded down – or turned up to protect the neck from the sun? As for the shirt-tail that’s longer in back than in the front? Lacoste revealed that at the 1926 U.S. Open championship to keep the shirt tucked in during play.
The crocodile emblem, representing a crocodile attaché he won for his on-court play – few now know – debuted in 1927. It was Lacoste’s nickname thereafter.
Still, the origins of various features remain the stuff of lore. Polo players historically buttoned the collar to prevent flapping in the wind, notes Duchamp London. Even the polo player logo is said to have originated in Buenos Aires and in 1920 was introduced to the masses by Canadian Lewis Lacey.
The shirt’s popularization took many forms. In 1927, Edward, Prince of Wales, commissioned Court hosier A J Izod (yes, that Izod) to create a dozen such shirts for hunting, Duchamp writes. Smitten with the new style, Brits bought them en masse. By 1933, the La Societe Chemise Lacoste, or The Lacoste Shirt Company, was mass marketing the shirts across the US and Europe. Izod later licensed Lacoste’s shirt.
In the 1950s, Lacoste released a line of colored shirts, which had become standard attire on tennis courts and golf courses. Still known to many as a “polo” shirt, Ralph Lauren in 1972 popularized the “Polo” name, complete with the polo-player logo.
It’s even been turned into art. In 1979, artist Roy Lichtenstein collaborated with the Fabric Workshop and Museum to create a limited run of 100 silk polos silkscreened with abstract Benday dots, stripes and bands of red, blue, yellow, black and white, notes FWM.
Today, the polo shirt with customized embroidery and logo placement is as common as work attire as it is a promotional item for companies, charities and organizations of all types. More stylish and uniform than a t-shirt, yet less formal than a suit or other traditional business apparel, it is the quintessential “casual Friday” shirt any day of the week. Many parents also know the polo as a common component of school uniforms.
Almost 100 years since its modern creation, one can only imagine whether the polo shirt’s widespread embrace is what Lacoste, Lacey, Izod, or Lauren envisioned for this piece of iconic apparel.