The History of the Polo Shirt
Few garments deserve the title of fashion classic as the polo-shirt. This short-sleeved, casual garment, and our namesake, is a true wardrobe staple.
While you may have worn a wholesale polo-shirt before. you may never have wondered how it came to be and how it got the name 'polo-shirt'. In fact, the story of the polo-shirt is an interesting tale dating back to the 19th century. From the British Military altering their polo shirts while stationed in India, the Polo went on to represent warring youth cultures, to being high jacked by a brand that made it the choice of Presidents, to the multi – purpose, versatile garment we know it as today.
The exact origin of the polo shirt is unknown, but its widely recorded début came in the late 19th century in the birthplace of Polo - Manipur, India. After British Soldiers witnessed a match while stationed in Manipur, they set up the first polo club of its time.
The sport grew in popularity with the British Army and British tea planters in India becoming regular players. Attention soon turned to their polo playing kit with traditional attire of the time consisting of thick, long sleeved shirts made of cotton. Unhappy with these uncomfortable shirts, they attached their collars to their shirts with buttons to stop them flapping while galloping on the field. The sport was introduced into England in 1862.
End of 1800's
At the end of the 19th century, John E Brooks, grandson of the founder of the Brooks Brothers firm in the US, came to England on a European buying trip. While watching a polo game he noticed something peculiar about the players collars; they were buttoned down so as to prevent them flapping in the wind.
Impressed, John took the idea back to the Brooks Brothers where they applied button-down collars to dress shirts.
This shirt was introduced in 1896 and became the iconic Button-Down formal shirt, changing the face of menswear forever. The shirt is said to be 'the most imitated item in fashion history' and the Brooks Brothers still call their shirts the original polo-shirt.
The next date important in the development of the polo shirt is 1920. This is the date that an Argentine-Irish haberdasher and polo player named Lewis Lacey opened a men's shop in Buenos Aired and began selling a polo-shirt embroidered with the image of a polo player.
A further key figure responsible for the style of the polo shirt we see today is French tennis legend Jean Rene Lacoste (1904 – 1996); most give him the credit of 'inventing' the modern polo shirt. In a similar fashion to the polo players of the time, tennis attire was highly impractical. In the early 1900's 'tennis whites' were long sleeved, button-up shirts that were usually worn with the sleeves rolled up. This impractical ensemble was finished with flannel trousers and ties. This came from the game being originally the preserve of high society – fashion won over functionality in these days. As tennis became more competitive, players began to look for ways of getting an edge.
Unhappy with these uncomfortable, starched tennis shirts Lacoste used his status as world number one and set about to design an alternative that fit his requirements perfectly. He decided to ignore the trend for rolling up sleeves on court and made his design short sleeved. He also decided upon an unstarched collar and a longer back known as a 'tennis' tail that could be tucked in easily.
Another important innovation was the use of pique cotton technology (actually developed originally in the home of polo-shirts.co.uk – the North West!). Lacoste used Pique cotton, a style of weaving lending itself to durability – and more importantly – breathability. This was perhaps the feature that helped the Lacoste design gain instant popularity over its more formal cotton predecessor. After embracing the nickname the crocodile (history isn't clear whether this was because of his rather large nose or his penchant for crocodile-skin suitcases) he emblazoned the shirts with his very own crocodile logo. Some even claim this polo-shirt was the first article of clothing to sport a visible brand name.
Lacoste wore this shirt to the 1926 US open championship (which he won), and the new style created a sensation. Other sportsmen took note and began to replace their traditional outfits with the Lacoste Tennis Shirt. The most notable of these sports being the sport of polo. As we previously discussed polo players had favoured the button down heavy cotton shirts to save their collars from flapping in the wind. However, they too saw the opportunity to wear something less restrictive and play more efficiently.
Polo players all over adopted the pique woven cotton shirts, particularly appreciating that the fabric allowed them to turn up the collars of the shirt to stop them getting sunburnt (see the perhaps surprising start of the popping ya collar trend!).
In 1933, with his friend and significant knitwear manufacturer Andre Gillier, Lacoste co-founded La Société Chemise Lacoste (The Lacoste Shirt Company), which made similar soft shirts to the ones he'd worn in 1926. It became a sporting classic and by the late 1940's, the term 'polo' shirt was used to describe the collared shirts worn not only by polo players but by anyone donning this soft collared shirt.
In 1951 Lacoste had a brilliant idea. He expanded the tennis whites to offer shirts in a variety of different colours. Lacoste also began to expand into America and the economic boom and ensuing sense of identity fuelled the increase in popularity of the polo shirt. Marketed as "the status symbol of the competent sportsman," the shirts retailed at the then expensive price of about eight dollars a piece. Sold only in high–end department stores on Madison Avenues, the Lacoste polo-shirt was an huge hit.
By 1953 the company was outfitting the most prominent people of the day. Their popularity increased further when US president Dwight Eisenhower chose to wear a Lacoste polo while playing golf.
Around this time Fred Perry, another tennis legend, decided he would try and create his own version of the Lacoste creation. Choosing the same cotton pique fabric, Perry improved on the Lacoste design by adding a log that was stitched into the fabric rather than ironed on.
Perry's popularity ensured his polo-shirt was able to mount a genuine challenge to Lacoste's original design and it became the garment of choice for teenagers, marking the beginning of these innovative items of sporting excellence making the leap from sport to fashion.
Polo players adopting the Lacoste polo had lead to the design becoming more widely known as a polo-shirt. However, it wasn't until a New Yorker called Ralph Lauren rose to prominence. that the polo-shirt really became the polo-shirt.
The next significant event in the history of the polo-shirt came in 1972 when Ralph Lauren wanted to give his new casual wear company a brand name that portrayed sophistication and timelessness. He named it after the sport of the wealthy and the Royals - Polo. He included the 'polo-shirt' as a prominent part of the Polo line which boosted its popularity further.
The 1980's became the decade of the polo-shirt as Lacoste and Ralph Lauren battled for the cash of Americans coast to coast. Lauren's. With superior branding and Lacoste over saturating the market Polo won the battle. It instantly became an American classic with the shirt itself developing iconic status as the embodiment of Polo lifestyle.
During the 1990's the polo shirt became part of the standard informal business attire for the high-tech industry and then spread to other industries. Often as part of a uniform, companies recognised the benefits of branding a plain polo-shirt with their own name and logo.
An undisputed fashion phenomenon the polo-shirt is comfortable stylish, sporty and unwaveringly popular. So when you are browsing our collection of fantastic polo-shirts take a moment to think about the brilliant heritage behind it. Nowadays polo shirts are available in a huge range of colours and styles and most labels produce a version – Fruit of the Loom, Uneek and Jerzees being just some of the highlights in out collection. Versatile, comfortable and long lasing, they give you great value for money and a proven timeless sense of quality and style – so get browsing and update your wardrobe with a polo-shirt!