With our Summertime fast approaching, we thought it would be perfect timing to do a post on the Polo Shirt. It is loved by men around the world and we salute it!
So where did it come from and how has it become what it is today?
The Polo Shirt is seen as one of the must have pieces in the modern wardrobe. By no means is it just for playing sport as it allows one to ‘dress down’ an outfit and simply to be really comfortable.
The 1920s was the decade in which fashion entered the modern era. Men abandoned the highly formal daily attire and even began to wear athletic clothing for the first time. The suits men wear today are still based, mostly on those worn in the late 1920s. Men’s fashion today is to a great extent still influenced by that of the 1920s. Many of you may be surprised to know that men’s fashion of that era was almost similar to the men’s business attire today. The 1920s was a period when men’s style made a change in its look, it’s feel; in fact it was this era which brought about revolutionary changes in the history of men’s fashion. Prior to 1920s most men had worn formal three piece suits every day. But mens fashion in the 1920s were much more casual in style. A time where cheerio and jazzy fashions became more acceptable and popular, it was a truly dapper, flapper time of fashion indeed.
Thus came the rise of the Polo Shirt. It derived from the want to be less confined on the playing courts and is a fashion trend that was clearly born out of functionality.
Rene Lacoste, the seven Grand Slam titles tennis champion, felt that the then stiff tennis attire was too cumbersome and uncomfortable and he identified that the long trousers and shirt sleeves restricted sportsmen and set about designing a more accessible short sleeve lightweight versatile piece of clothing. This item has since not only stood the test of time but also fashion cycles.
Much of men’s clothing in the 1920s took direction from what popular athletes were wearing. The plus-fours, plus-sixes and plus-eights of course, were worn by golf stars such as Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, who topped them off with colourful Fair Isle sweaters a brand you would best remember as multi-colored, multi-pattern sweater styles that actually originated in Scotland. “Plus” pants are categorised by how far the pants fell below the knee before being secured around the leg area. As tennis grew in popularity, so did the Polo Shirt, white trousers and V-neck sweaters the players wore and became much of what young guys fashioned around town.
His design, a white, short-sleeved, loosely-knit pique cotton; he called the cotton weave jersey petit piqué and the shirt was created with an unstarched, flat, protruding collar, a buttoned placket, and a shirt-tail longer in back than in front, which has become known today as a “tennis tail”. The shirt tail is longer than the front so that it will stay tucked in during and after active exertion. Since human beings primarily bend back to front, it isn’t necessary for the shirt to be exceptionally long in front. It may occasionally be necessary for a person who has been doing cartwheels or indeed handsprings to re-tuck a shirt in front, but those are rarer occasions for more exuberant individuals.
It was first given its outing and seen in action at the US Open by Lacoste in 1927. Lacoste placed a crocodile emblem on the left breast of his shirts, as the American press had begun to refer to him as “The Crocodile” and the nickname he embraced. When Monsieur Lacoste walked onto court wearing a short-sleeved top in a lightweight, breathable cotton, known as jersey petit pique, it caused a storm.
The fabric gave its wearers a garment that allowed them more movement and circulation, the breathable cotton fabric with a soft collar was quickly identified as a winner by Lacoste and he teamed up with Andre Gillier in the 1930’s to create a modern tennis shirt that was used by all the players on the circuit.
It wasn’t until the 1950’s it arrived in Britain, by which time, development of a unique lighter fabric by Peter Hill, Grandson of founder Thomas Hill brought the style to British shores. In an effort to make the Polo lighter, Hill introduced the polo in a unique fabric. The new open knit fabric construction allowed air to circulate, thus keeping the body cool and comfortable in the warmer climate of the Riviera. Acting as a piece of fashionable and practical kit for the wearer.
The Polo Shirt is made from Pique Cotton. Invariably the word “pique” causes people to stumble around trying to pronounce it correctly. It is not really a surprise as it’s one of those words that have no obvious pronunciation. When I first started in this business I didn’t know how to pronounce it correctly either. Dictionaries list the pronunciation as “\pi-ˈkā, ˈpē-\”. As in “pi-kay” or “pee-kay”. Always best to know what you are talking about to avoid any confusion! Many times I have heard it said as “pick” or “peak”. Pique actually refers to a style of weaving, normally used with cotton yarn, identified easily by raised the parallel cords or fine ribbing. It creates a fine textured hand that appears similar to a waffle weave.
The parallel cords give the weave a 3 dimensional quality. The majority of golf or polo shirts sold today feature a pique weave. It has proven to be popular in style and durability for decades. Over the years they have become a favorite giveaway in corporate events, and is a fashion style that can be worn with trousers, jeans, and shorts.
Not restricted to tennis players, it was adopted by a number of youngsters and Fred Perry’s distinctive logo was made famous by the Mod movement. Frederick John “Fred” Perry (18 May 1909 – 2 February 1995) was a championship-winning English tennis and table tennis player who won ten Majors including eight Grand Slams and two Pro Slams single titles, as well as six Major doubles titles. Perry won three consecutive Wimbledon’s’ from 1934 to 1936 and was World Amateur number one tennis player during those three years. Prior to Andy Murray in 2013, Perry was the last British player to win the men’s Wimbledon championship, in 1936 and was the last British player to win a men’s singles Grand Slam title until Andy Murray won the 2012 US Open.
The Modernists ‘Mods’ were small groups of individuals, mainly males, although there were a few females. Within their circle they talked about clothes; they were completely obsessed with the right look and style. These early Mods spent small fortunes on made to measure suits, shirts and shoes. It simply was not possible to get what they wanted in Burtons or other local High Street Stores.
These early Mods sought out tailors in South and East London who could knock up a suit based on drawings they supplied. The backstreet tailors, used to supplying the extravagant taste of the Teddy Boys in the 50s, adapted to the new youth fashion of the Mods.
Stylistically Mods liked a smart suit, in a style that was constantly updated. Jackets became waisted, rather than box style, drawing on the influence of the traditional City Gent look. The length of the vents in a jacket and centre, or side vents became particular points of style. Lapels were always thin and trousers slim fitting with narrow bottoms. Mohair was often the first choice for material. It could be two-tone mohair, which looked a different colour if viewed from a different angle, also referred to as ‘tonic’. Slim ties were still popular, with knitted ties being particularly fashionable. Shirts were slim fitting, the button-down collar was very important. The Polo Shirt would often be worn under a suit creating a different look and key to the Mod style.
Favourite tailors and outfitters included Harry Fenton, John Michael and of course, John Stephen. By the mid 60s John Stephen’s men’s shop had taken over from the backstreet tailors. John Stephen’s on Carnaby Street became the male equivalent of Mary Quant’s Bazaar. In 1966 you could buy a suit from John Stephen for 37gns. (guineas: 1 guinea = £1 1 shilling = £16 today) John Stephen also sold a gold lame leather jacket for 50gns.
Some of the original Mod labels still exist today and many sell clothes similar to those sold in the 60s and worn by Mods from 1979. However, they are fashion labels and do move with the times. Ben Sherman targets a younger market and mixes original Mod gear with a newer look which draws some of its inspiration from the Punk and Two Tone scenes from 1976 to the early 80s.
Also in the 60’s the Polo Shirt reached Presidential heights with John Kennedy who was a keen advocate for this look.
It was Ralph Lauren in the 70’s and his world famous Polo logo who gave this shirt a real identity and the Polo Shirt was quickly adopted the world over and a mainstay item. He chose to embrace a wide variety of strong colours and with Polo being associated as a sport of the wealthy it gave gravitas to the wearer. Lewis Lacey, an Argentine polo player-Irish origins in the 1920s, opened a men’s clothing store in Buenos Aires selling Polo Shirt with the embroidered polo player, the first instance of this logo. The 80s were the golden era of this garment, including a war between Lacoste and Lauren, which was probably won by Ralph Lauren, mainly because it was the one with a higher level of quality.
Since its introduction in 1972, the Ralph Lauren Polo Shirt has clearly become a lasting icon of the preppy culture and lifestyle. Debuted that year in 24 signature colours and a single fit, the Polo has come a long way in style and design, though the original remains true to fit and form. Today, 40 years later, Ralph Lauren introduces new colours and limited edition styles each season. With its rich heritage and modern appeal, the Polo is not only a Ralph Lauren classic, it is also part of the Polo Ralph Lauren identity and is as timeless as the brand that revolutionised it. Indeed it is still aspirational in every way as the day it was launched and gave the style of shirts it’s global name.
This firmly placed it as a versatile wardrobe staple for any man. Made ever more popular by James Bond, when Sean Connery supported the look and it was only fitting that James should revitalise the Polo, in 2006 Casino Royale. The film’s costumier, Lindy Hemming, gave new life to the shirt by dressing Daniel Craig in the new incarnation of James Bond. Meeting the demands of a Bond who was more active and muscular, and using vintage fabrics, reconfigured the classic shirt to complement Daniel Craig’s physique. Allowing him to move cleanly and easily in action sequences. This edition of the Polo did away with any decorations or add ons resulting in the most elegant and practical of garments suitable for a man of action and style.
Perhaps such a potted history also points to why the Polo Shirt works as well today as it ever has, and all the more so given that “Polo Shirt” has become more a catch-all term for a variety of cuts and finishes, each of which has their place in a wardrobe. It is still a staple of the sporting world and adorned by our heros and heroines at all competitive levels today. The Polo Shirt has grown to become a popular fashion statement for the smart but casual and comfortable look. Polo shirts have become a Summertime essential, perfect for casual dinner parties, beach going, poolside relaxation, and even some professional events. In fact, many country clubs, golf club and tennis clubs even require Polo Shirts as a part of their dress code.
The items which deserve the title of fashion classic are few, but the Polo Shirt is definitely one of them and we love them!