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A Tale of Men’s Clothing: The Polo Shirt

Just like a crocodile waiting in ambush for its prey, tennis star René became versed in watching his opponents’ weaknesses. He would come closer to the net, send the ball with an excellent backhand slice – or place it by a groundstroke, as swift as an arrow.

He won numerous titles and left a mythical mark on the history of tennis in the late 1920s, along with his three compatriots, Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon and Henri Cochet. The four Frenchmen dominated the international tennis community – a domination that gave them the name “The Four Musketeers.”

“The Crocodile,” however, was quite different. He had a unique style in tennis – both in game and his appearance. What made him the most famous sportsman in his era was quite a revolution. He had a crocodile figure embroidered on his left breast, and the shirt he wore looked unusually good. With short sleeves and a breathing piqué fabric, this gear altered the way René played the game as he had foreseen.

Polo Shirt

Back then, the typical tennis attire would consist of long-sleeved button-up shirts, ties and trousers. This style was too uncomfortable and restricting for a game that required top-level agility and motion. But one day, the seven-time Grand Slam champion had a chance to examine a polo player with an unusual attire. Lord Cholmondeley’s polo attire inspired René to create his own tennis shirt, thus the traditional tennis attire started to vanish in time.

René wore this shirt for the entire 1926 US Open and attracted the entire attention to himself. Sports media was too busy talking about how this shirt allowed René to move faster and to feel the air because of the breathable fabric. He could also turn up his collars to protect his skin from the sun.

Another new feature of this shirt was the longer back of the shirt, or the “tennis tail,” which gave ease to the player when bending and prevented the shirt from stretching and being pulled out of the tuck-in.

After retiring from professional tennis, this brilliant man partnered with French knitwear manufacturer André Gillier and established a new shirt company, which took its name from René’s family name: Lacoste.

Why Polo?

Polo players usually wore long-sleeve shirts made of Oxford cloth cotton. These special shirts had button-down collars to stop them from flapping in the wind. This style was later adopted by Brooks Brothers as the Oxford Cotton Button-Down. The shirt is the original polo shirt as it still carries the appellation on its tag: “The Original Polo Shirt.”

Polo shirt

In the following years, polo players became wary of the new shirts used in tennis games, and a trend started among polo players to use cotton shirts with soft collars in order to turn up the collars of the shirt to avoid sunburn. Before René Lacoste’s invention, the term polo shirt referred to the original, buttoned-down shirts; however, it soon became a universal name for the men’s tennis attire.

The shirt is called the “Polo Shirt,” however, the usage “Tennis Shirt” is still very common along with “Golf Shirt.”

Shirt

The Company

In 1933, René Lacoste and André Gillier co-founded The Lacoste Shirt Company to manufacture René’s famous soft cotton shirts. It didn’t take them too long to make the brand a classic baseline product for athletes, especially tennis players. Soon after, the term “polo shirt” became a common tag for the soft-collared shirts worn by anybody on earth.

No matter what the players wore, the name of tennis attire had always been called the “tennis whites” because of the requirement. This also gives a clue about what kind of products Lacoste manufactured over the years: white shirts with the crocodile.

But after 1950s, Lacoste broke the taboos by expanding their manufacturing repertoire and adding new colors into their palette – a move that provided the company with new pathways, including giving rights to Izod to market Lacoste in the States. Izod combined the brand name with “Lacoste,” boosting the profit and reaching an unimaginable popularity in the 70s.

President Eisenhower, wearing a Lacoste in a golf game.

The story of “polo shirt” is not all lavender and roses when it comes to fashion. The 70s brought a new prospect in menswear with the new blooming concepts in fashion. In the early years of the decade, a young designer in his thirties, Ralph Lauren, who had launched his brand Polo in 1967, came up with an idea to include the famous buttoned-neckline shirt in his creation. With the polo player emblem on the chest, the new shirt of the brand Polo Ralph Lauren easily became the landmark in the preppy style of the era.

Polo ralph lauren

Lauren admired the cotton shirt idea and its durability, and applied this fabric knit into his own shirts – which then became the most popular element of the creation. Polo, known as the game of chivalry and royalty, gave its name to the new style that Lauren created. The following years witnessed the rivalry between Polo Ralph Lauren and Lacoste, both trying the best to dominate the American market.

In 1984, the shirt’s popularity marked a legal battle between Ralph Lauren and the official governing organization of the polo game in America, U.S. Polo Association. The first lawsuit was filed by Lauren on the grounds that USPA used the word “Polo” as a marketing tool on their clothing and the brand’s logo was nearly identical to that of Ralph Lauren. The past four decades witnessed several lawsuits regarding the dispute between USPA and Polo Ralph Lauren.

Through the end of the century, the shirt was also adopted by golf players who preferred the casual clothing over the traditional attire. The tennis shirt of Lacoste was remade as a golf shirt with a few retouches and applications, becoming the new tradition of the game’s dress code.

Today, every brand produces its own type of polo, sticking to the logo-chest style and the buttoned-neckline look, by experimenting new looks and applying new methods of fabrication.

Name it the way you like: polo, tennis, golf…

But there is one fact that remains: René’s idea started the revolution in men’s clothing.