The Polo Shirt is one of the key pieces in menswear, a stylish simple piece that can be worn both in formal and casual situations it is a must have for the modern mans wardrobe. The cotton shirt with its 2 or 3 button placket and soft collar has an origin with 3 main protagonists, an American heritage dealer, a debonair French sportsman and another American, this time a visionary tycoon. The three played their part in the development of what we call the polo shirt in their own unique way.
The first incarnation of the polo shirt was more akin to an Oxford Shirt and was developed by John E. Brooks, whose family had founded Brooks Brothers, the oldest men’s clothier in the US. The idea came to him whilst observing English Polo Players, in the latter part of the 19th century and how they had applied a pair of buttons to the collar of their uniforms to avoid the flapping whilst they were mounted. This is the first mention of a “Polo Shirt” in men’s fashion but was someway off what we think of as a polo shirts today, an cotton weaved pique shirt with a soft collar and buttoned placket.
It wasn’t until the 1920’s that the modern polo shirts took shape. The attire of the time for Tennis players was a white long sleeved shirt with a stiff collar and white trousers but it wasn’t until a Frenchman at the top of the tennis world took matters into his own hands. Rene Lacoste, winner of 7 Grands Slam singles titles and 2 Davis Cups, started wearing a shirts of his own creation, one constructed of soft and breathable cotton with shorts sleeves. This was the first polo shirt.
Such was the influence and renown of Lacoste, upon his retirement he was approached by knitwear manufacturer, Andre Gillier. The idea in Gillier’s head was to sell the shirt commercially and also proposed the motif of a crocodile, the nickname of Lacoste, to heighten the appeal of the garment and in doing so became the first brand to display their branding on the outside of the garment.
The “Tennis Shirt”, as it was known then, became an instant classic and was hugely popular in Europe and the US, quickly becoming the symbol of sporty athilesiure. The American preppy scene took a liking to the tennis shirts and brought about a partnership between Lacoste and Izod, allowing the latter to produce and sell the garments, again increasing the garments popularity. The Izod made polo shirt was changed and in the 1960’s was changed to be made with the new and cheaper polyester fabric rather than the original cotton pique and it was this change that brought about the next major protagonist in the polo shirts’ history.
The final man in the tale of the Polo Shirt is one of the most well known names in fashion, Ralph Lauren. Lauren was a massive fan of the feel and wear that you got with a cotton polo shirt with the idea of the shirt becoming your own over time, moulding to your frame and softening over time. The problem for him was that these new synthetic polyester polo shirts wouldn’t distress or fade in the same way as a cotton one would, he therefore sett off to create his own model. He had launched his own brand “Polo Ralph Lauren” in 1967 and knowing that he could improve the polo shirts he went about developing the quintessential cotton pique polo shirt for his collection.
Lauren launched his polo shirt collection in 1972 with the slogan “It gets better with age”, not only that the polo shirts came in a variety of different colours and all carried the iconic Polo Player motif on the chest. The campaign was an instant success and has been a monumental part of the Polo Ralph Collections for the past 5 decades. It is fair to say that without this collection the modern interpretation of the Polo Shirt may not have come about.
Over the past 100 or so years the polo shirt has become one of the more iconic pieces in menswear and can be seen in nearly every collection from most headline brands across the world.