Polos – The Athletic Story Behind the Spring Shirt

Rene Lacoste Wearing an Original Tennis Shirt

Long before their association to popped collars and giant horses, the polo shirt was created to solve a problem on the tennis court.  The traditional tennis outfit of the nineteenth century included a button up long sleeve shirt, flannel trousers, and a tie.  While this outfit embodied the sophistication of tennis it was also far too rigid for the players and consistently hindered their abilities.  Frenchman Rene Lacoste, one of the finest players of the 1920’s recognized the pitfalls of this outfit and set out to produce a shirt that was more tailored toward the player.  What Lacoste came up with was the tennis shirt, a short sleeve shirt that meet the needs of the player – high cuffed sleeves kept the shirt from interfering with play, a loose pique cotton weave and multibutton placket kept the shirt breathable, and an elongated tail prevented it from coming untucked during play.  Lacoste debuted the tennis shirt at the 1926 U.S. Open, a tournament he subsequently went on to win, and from then on both the shirt and Lacoste continued to gain notoriety. When Lacoste retired in 1933 he partnered with his friend Andre Gillier, to found the Lacoste brand and mass produce the tennis shirt.

Early Polo Players Beginning to Wear Polo Shirts

Simultaneously, polo players were faced with a similar problem, as their uniforms included a heavy long sleeve oxford that was far too uncomfortable to play in.  Polo players soon took note of the advantages of Lacoste’s shirts on the tennis court and started to adopt the shirts for their own game.   As tennis shirts became popular amongst polo players they began to sew emblems of a man playing polo onto the new shirts, which became dubbed the “polo shirt.”  The name and the shirts disseminated rapidly and before too long polo shirts found a place off the field as a comfortable yet refined shirt, thanks largely to their origins in such high society sports.

Will Rogers Wearing a Polo Shirt in the 1930's

With these connotations in mind, in the 1970’s Ralph Lauren decided to incorporate the shirts into his early Polo collections, which helped to establish the polo as everyday attire.  Throughout the years the elite aesthetic that polo shirts once had has all but worn away entirely.  Modernly, most polo shirts appeal to a less subtle audience and are often produced in various absurd pastel colors with distastefully large emblems.  Yet, this should not detract from the advantages that polo shirts provide during warmer situations.  The key to picking the right polo is to stay true to the original design and just keep it simple.  Toned down colors and little to no emblem make for a reserved and practical look that could replace an oxford during spring.

Isaia Heathered Cotton Polo

Ian Velardi Tennis Polo

Brioni Contrast Placket Polo Shirt

Brooks Brothers Black Fleece Button Down Cotton-Pique Polo Shirt

Kent Wang Burnt Orange Polo

Ralph Lauren Purple Label Cotton Pique Polo Shirt

Sunspel Cotton Polo Shirt

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4 comments
  1. keeper said:

    Great info here. I’m a big fan of the Lacoste polo shirts

  2. You never disappoint. I never really thought of the origin of a shirt I wear so often. You have to be writing for a magazine or something because this type of research on solid information is scholarly. Wonderful!

    • Thank you, I’m glad you’re enjoying it, it really means a lot

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