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Fashion February, 18 2013

Back to School: The Polo Shirt

For regular readers of Highsnobiety, our obsession with clothing, trends, and menswear in general is no secret. So on a quest to educate both ourselves and our readers on classic wardrobe staples, we present a new series which traces some of the world’s most iconic pieces of clothing from their humble beginnings to their role in the modern world.

Oftentimes, a piece of clothing is so ubiquitous that we take its creation for granted and don’t even consider its origins or how it got to where it is today. In an effort to combat that line of thinking we present this brand new weekly series and begin with the renowned polo shirt. Take a look below for the full piece.

The story of the modern polo shirt is one of victory and fame. The story begins on the tennis courts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the time, tennis players wore long-sleeved button-up white shirts called “tennis whites” which, needless to say, were a bit too constrictive given the physical demands of the sport. Before the match, players would roll up their sleeves which more often than not would come undone – especially during intense rallies that required tremendous amounts of concentration and force.

To solve this dilemma and at the same time give himself an edge, 7-time Grand Slam champion Rene Lacoste created a short-sleeved, loose-knit pique cotton shirt with a flat, protruding collar, a buttoned placket, and a longer shirt-tail in the back, now referred to as a “tennis tail.” At quick glance, the new design provided a range of benefits including the ability to pop the collar for protection from the sun – a feature that would later be exploited for the worse up and down the Jersey shore.

In any case, the tennis star first wore his design at the U.S. Open Championship in 1926 where he promptly took the Singles trophy with him back to France. Upon his success, the American press began to refer to him as “The Crocodile” due to a bet he had with his team captain where the prize up for grabs was a crocodile skin suitcase. Once it had caught on and become an official nickname of sorts, Lacoste’s friend Robert George embroidered the now-famous crocodile onto a blazer that Lacoste would wear to matches.

In 1933 once Lacoste had retired, the Musketeer teamed up with Andre Gillier, who happened to be the owner and president of the largest French knitwear manufacturing at the time, and began producing and selling the tennis shirt complete with crocodile logo. Up until then, polo players had been wearing thick, long-sleeved shirts made of Oxford cloth but quickly made the switch to Lacoste’s shirts once becoming aware of them. Thus, Lacoste’s invention began to be referred to as a polo shirt even by those playing nothing but tennis. And since tennis remained predominately an upper-class sport, the shirt quickly became associated with the wealthy and flourished among those who could afford separate clothes for sweating in.

In 1952, just a year after Lacoste introduced colored shirts, English tennis star Fred Perry presented his own shirt a bit to the north on his home turf at Wimbledon. Like Lacoste’s, Perry’s featured short sleeves and a buttoned placket but came embroidered with a Laurel wreath and had a slimmer fit. Unlike Lacoste’s shirts however, Perry’s shirts became the youth’s de facto choice and were quickly adopted by prominent English subcultures like the style-conscious Mods and later Skinheads. The cause of this devoted following is uncertain although some attribute it to Britain’s nationalistic pride at the time which led to the Englishman’s signature line becoming the face, or rather chest, of Britain’s working youth.

Each brand’s polo continued to be associated with their respective cultures in the UK and US when the garment reached an even wider audience in 1972 by being included as part of Ralph Lauren’s original Polo line. Like Perry and Lacoste before him, Lauren embroidered his own logo on the shirt, this time a polo player and pony. Finally, nearly 50 years after its invention, the name “polo shirt” successfully embraced its dual meaning that encompassed both polo players and connoisseurs of Ralph Lauren’s first Polo line.

Lauren’s shirts came to represent a new era of privileged American men while Lacoste’s shirts continued their upper-class aspirations and even got a tip of the hat in Lisa Birnbach’s Official Preppy Handbook in 1980. Perry’s shirts, on the other hand, wove their way through different subcultures and experienced a resurgence in the 1990s thanks to their endorsement by era-defining Britpop musicians.

Now, virtually every major clothing manufacturer on the planet includes a line of polo shirts. Lacoste polos can be found nearly everywhere and continue to be associated with the upper-class and tennis players due to contracts with tennis stars like Andy Roddick and John Isner while Fred Perry is still the brand of choice for those fond of the working class and retro-British look. Ralph Lauren’s fans seem to run the gamut from classy ladies and gents to wealthy tourists looking for nothing but the legendary logo.

But the timeless design hasn’t just been reserved for those select subcultures.

Streetwear brands like BAPE, Stussy, and Supreme have taken the storied garment and integrated their own aesthetics in recent years bringing the polo to audiences that might otherwise shy away from it due to its perceived associations and stereotypes.

Because of the wide range of options, everyone from influential musicians to moody, hormonal teenagers working at big-box retailers can be seen wearing one form of the shirt or another. Its power to stand the test of time and permeate so many subcultures lies in its ability to blend the formalness of button-down shirts with the casualness of t-shirts. In other words, the polo shirt is now rightfully a staple of the modern wardrobe and will continue to be so for many, many years.

Join us next week as we trace the footsteps of another clothing essential.

Illustrations: Fritz Radtke

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