The polo shirt is an iconic piece of clothing, ironically made famous by tennis players, and has carried through to this day as a favoured item of sportswear as well as a fashion staple. Initially created to be worn during sport, the garment gained popularity in the 1960s as the ‘mod’ subculture adopted it as a key part of their wardrobe, and it was also widely worn by those embracing the ‘preppy’ look in the 70s and 80s.
Its prevalence in sports and fashion is still seen today, owing to its comfort and laid-back design.
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The polo shirt began its life in the late 1800s and, as the name suggests, was designed to be worn whilst playing polo. The original design is unrecognisable as the polo shirt we all know today — it was initially a long-sleeved, button-down shirt made from Oxford cloth, with buttons securing the collar from being caught by the wind. In actuality, today’s polo shirt design came from a different sport entirely - tennis.
Originally, tennis-whites consisted of collared cotton shirts with long sleeves that were usually rolled up and worn with flannel trousers. This was until the 1926 US Open championships when René Lacoste, a French seven-time Grand Slam tennis champion, broke tradition and debuted his take on the polo shirt. It was made from a breathable pique-cotton and had short sleeves, making for a much more comfortable garment that did not restrict movement, unlike the previous styles. A crocodile was embroidered on the chest of his shirts, as during his successful career, Lacoste was given the nickname ‘le Crocodile’ due to his agility and tenacity on the court. In 1933, after René Lacoste had retired from the sport, he was approached by a knitwear manufacturer to create his line of polo shirts, complete with the crocodile emblem.
As time progressed, polo shirts were more commonly made from polyester because it had a longer lifespan than cotton and didn’t wear out. Ralph Lauren, at the time an emerging designer, disliked the polyester versions, expressing an appreciation for a well-worn piece of clothing. Lauren famously released a line of cotton polo shirts in 1972, four years after his debut menswear collection, with the tagline, “It gets better with age.” By this time, the polo shirt was common attire for polo players, and despite the modern iteration of the polo shirt being worn to play tennis well before polo, Ralph Lauren’s hugely successful design features a polo player emblazoned on the chest, cementing its connection to the sport.
Today the polo shirt prevails as a ubiquitous piece of clothing and remains iconic in both sport and fashion.
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