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The History Of The Polo Shirt

What is a polo shirt?

Depends when you’re asking. In the 21st Century, a polo shirt is a collared shirt usually made of knitted cotton, usually with three buttons, often (but not always) with short, cuffed sleeves. Pre-1972, you’d likely get a totally different answer. We’ll dig into that shortly.

 

 

Who invented the polo shirt?

If we’re speaking of the modern iteration of the polo shirt, then you have Jean René Lacoste to thank for its design. But there are several other claimants to the Collared Throne: John E. Brooks, Ralph Lauren, and an unknown 19th Century pioneer from the Northeast Indian state of Manipur. Read on to decide which camp you belong to.

 

 

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Polo shirts in the 19th Century

 

The first polo shirts were literally shirts in which to play polo, as you’d imagine. Polo was hugely popular in India throughout the 19th Century i.e. when Britain had its greasy empirical paws wrapped around a quarter of the Earth’s land mass, India included. British military men learned the sport (called pulu in the non-anglicised version of the word, after the ball used to play it) from the locals in Manipur. They were what were essentially cotton dress shirts with collars. These collars would flap about in the wind as the players cantered about on their horsies, and so the players began buttoning down their collars to counteract the inconvenience. The military fellas brought polo, as they called it, and their button-down collared shirts back to the UK with them, where a visiting American, John E. Brooks (of the famous Brooks Brothers retailing brand) noticed them and swiftly decided to produce his own button-down collared shirts back in the States. Thus, the polo shirt had spread to three separate continents by 1896.

 

 

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Polo shirts in the 20th Century

 

The Brooks Brothers’ ‘Original Button-Down Polo Shirt’ was doing just fine in the first quarter of the 20th Century, but the seeds that would flower as what we now know as the polo shirt were sown in the mid-1920s, not by a menswear retailer, but by a superstar tennis player — Le Crocodile, René Lacoste.

Lacoste was, first and foremost, the greatest tennis player of his generation. The guy won seven grand-slam titles, including back-to-back US Opens in 1926 and 1927. Lacoste’s contemporaries were still wearing button-down shirts and ties. Ties. To play tennis in. Blokes scurrying around Wimbledon dressed like Bryan Ferry. Mad. Lacoste, smart fella that he was, decided not to do that and, instead, designed his own shirt made of knitted cotton (much more breathable and lightweight), with short sleeves and three buttons extending a quarter of the way down the shirt, as opposed the full button-down shirts of his opponents. This innovation no doubt helped him become even more tennisorially (wasn’t a word until now) superior to his peers and, of course, the design caught on. Crucially, from a fashion point of view, Lacoste had a little crocodile embroidered onto the left breast of the shirt — a nod to his nickname, given to him for his freakish agility and power… like a crocodile.

Menswear brands jumped on the idea. Notably John Smedley began producing tennis shirts modelled after Lacoste’s innovative design. But when Lacoste retired from tennis in the early 1930s, he went into partnership with André Gillier to start producing authentic La Chemise Lacoste tennis shirts and they smashed the competition off the court. Why? Well, because they had that little crocodile, didn’t they?

Lacoste’s shirts grew in popularity and made the jump over the Atlantic in the 1950s when American manufacturer Izod acquired a licence to produce and sell Lacoste clothing. In America, the knitted cotton Lacoste shirts gained a life outside of sports and became popular smart-casual garments, often worn under sports jackets by preppy Ivy Leaguers and golf club members.

What we now know as polo shirts weren’t actually incorporated into the sport of polo until around halfway through the 20th Century. It’s not really because of the sport that we call them polo shirts today. We call them polo shirts because Ralph Lauren, who was in the process of establishing his brand — Polo liked the design and decided to produce his own version. This coincided with a rise in the use of polyester in manufacturing processes, which Ralph wasn’t a fan of and so manufactured his shirts from 100% cotton. These high-quality cotton tennis shirts became synonymous with the Polo Ralph Lauren brand and came to be known as, simply, Polo shirts.

 

 

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Design Features of the Polo Shirt

 

Collar and Placket

All polo shirts have a collar and a placket (that’s the opening where the buttons go). This is a happy hangover from the original Lacoste design, which was an innovation on the weightier, mobility-hampering shirts worn by tennis players pre-Lacoste. The collar and placket give the polo shirt its classic and immediately recognisable style and silhouette, and are undoubtedly what allowed the shirt to blur the lines between formality and informality in its infancy.

 

Fabric and fit

Traditionally, polo shirts are made from cotton, but many have used polyester and cotton/polyester blend since around the 1960s. Knitted pique cotton (textured cotton) is the material most commonly associated with polo shirts. The fit should be slim, since the shirt is literally the descendent of a sports shirt, with sleeves that stop somewhere between the shoulder and elbow, and a placket that reaches to the lower chest area when unbuttoned.

 

 

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Modern-day Polo Shirts?

 

As with all classic clothing designs, the polo short has been adapted and modified continuously so that there are plenty of subtly different iterations available to you today. A classic-fit polo shirt, for example, will be slightly on the baggier side and feature a back that is longer than the front — a tennis tail — which was to help keep tennis players’ shirts from becoming untucked in the throes of a gruelling rally. Modern polo shirts come in a range of materials — pique knit, jersey knit, cotton, linen, silk, polyester, and blends of all of the above — and here at Perci we’re all about subverting the norm. Our Campari Pantani Zip Polos do just that, with a zip design replacing the classic buttons, and Campari graphic across the lower chest, bringing a modern twist of orange. Our Pullover Polo Shirts are designed with a cuffed edge at the bottom of the shirt, typical of sweatshirts. This brings a whole new fit to the original design.

 

 

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Is a polo shirt smart or casual?

 

Both, actually (the worst Richard Curtis film never made). As we’ve discussed, they began as sportswear, then became preppy formalwear for posh American college students. Polo shirts also became part of a required dress code at some high-end golf clubs during the 20th Century. In the second half of the 20th Century, polo shirts were firmly part of the public diaspora. If you grew up in the UK in the 1990s, you almost certainly remember seeing Britpop firmly embrace the polo. Fred Perry was massive, and polo shirts were embraced from council estates to mummy and daddy’s countryside estate. The polo shirt remains one of the only truly smart and casual items of clothing depending on the styling, the fit, and the occasion.

 

 

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How to style a polo shirt?

 

If you’re a bigger man, we recommend going for a more classic fit, with lower shoulders and a longer cut making it easier to tuck in. A classic fit polo can hide a multitude of sugary overindulgences and missed gym sessions, and will complement your figure. If you’re in decent nick or, indeed, absolutely shredded, we recommend a more modern, slimmer fitting polo. These often come with a shorter length and lend themselves to being worn untucked, if that’s your vibe. Polo shirt collars look great popped, as long as you’re going informal. Don’t pop your colour to a formal dinner or an awards ceremony unless you’re running to be the mayor of Faux Pas City.

 

 

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What to wear with a polo shirt?

 

Polos are great for a hot summer’s day, since they’re pretty absorbent and breathable. You can pair with a good pair of linen shorts, tucked or untucked, for a casual summer look. Alternatively, a good quality polo under a blazer or sports jacket, and tucked into trousers, is a fantastic formal look if you’re not looking to go OTT on the dressing-up. Our Knitted Pullover Polo Shirt and Polo Jumper goes beautifully with a pair of linen trousers for an evening on the negronis. Finally, our Campari Pantani Zip Polo goes with just about everything and brings a fantastic modern flavour to this all-time classic.

 

 

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