What was the French tennis player René Lacoste thinking in the thirties when he wore the polo shirt to play tennis and thus made it world famous?
The polo shirt is a classic of casual fashion: apart from casual fashion, it is nowadays also finding its way into business fashion. On the one hand, polo shirts are appreciated for their timeless elegance. On the other hand, polo shirts are more comfortable and uncomplicated than classic shirts. A polo shirt combines elegance with comfort.
Tennis in the thirties had a strict etiquette: tennis players always wore long-sleeved white shirts. René Lacoste considered this dress code outdated and designed the polo shirt as it is known today: the shirt had a collar and buttons like a shirt, but differed from the classic shirt by having short sleeves and by its light and breathable piqué fabric.
Piqué fabric is a double weave of cotton characterized by a quilted, waffle-like structure. To this day, piqué cotton fabric is the most common fabric for polo shirts. However, knitted polo shirts – made of cashmere or wool, for example – are also common.
But where does the name polo shirt come from? Polo is a very old sport. As early as 600 BC, people in Persia are said to have played a game similar to today’s polo. In the 19th century, polo was discovered by English colonists in India and found its way to England in 1871. At that time polo was an extremely popular sport and there was a strict etiquette on the field: this included the dress code.
Polo players always wore a shirt and jacket when playing polo. This looked chic, but was by no means practical for the sport. Thus, an early version of the polo shirt was created, but it has little in common visually with today’s version of the polo shirt.
The early version of the polo shirt was developed in India: At that time, Indian aristocrats wore striped, hip-length round-collar jerseys. The first polo shirt was based on this design, but at that time it had long sleeves and was made of thick wool fabric to protect players from wind and cold. The collar was added later for wind protection.
Soon the polo shirt spilled over to England: There, a U.S. men’s outfitter discovered the polo shirt in the late 19th century and patented the name.
Despite the similarity of the name with polo, the polo shirt does not owe its fame to polo sports: without the French tennis player René Lacoste, who made the polo shirt world-famous, the polo shirt would hardly enjoy its present reputation.
René Lacoste was nicknamed Le Crocodile on the tennis court. The tennis player quickly took advantage of his nickname and began producing polo shirts with crocodile embroidery in 1933. For a long time, the “brand with the crocodile” was number one in the polo shirt market and continues to manufacture polo shirts to this day.
In the course of the 20th century, various other fashion companies secured the rights to the polo shirt and distributed the shirts worldwide.
Today, the polo shirt is much more than just a sports shirt: polo shirts are worn in almost all situations of life. Whether for leisure, sports or at work: Polo shirts are fashionable almost everywhere and can even be worn with a jacket replacing the classic shirt.
Simon von Ludwig
Cover image: A knit polo shirt with V-neck, © Simon von Ludwig