Many of us have heard the term polo shirt and many of us have worn them or still wear them. But how many of us know where the term polo shirt came from and whom it was that came up with it?
Indeed the shirt started with the game of polo. Polo started off as a sport played by Tibetan men who called the ball that they hit a pulu. In the 7th Century the Persians invented a new game, a game that made use of the pulu by riding horses and hitting it with sticks. By the time that the Persian game had become a recognized Indian sport, it was called “polo.” When the British occupied India, they enjoyed watching polo games. The British eventually learned how to play polo as well and brought the sport to England.
In the mid-1800s, sports teams in Britain began to wear knitted shirts at soccer games, at rowing matches and at other sporting events. Although they had long sleeves, their jerseys did share one feature with today’s polo shirt and that was they were made from a knitted material. By the19th century, a businessman and entrepreneur who saw the jerseys and liked them, redesigned them and sold them as “polo shirts.” Printed ads for “polo shirts” appeared in Maryland papers as early as 1887.
In 1923 the members of the Hurlingham Polo Team in Buenos Aires appeared at a match wearing the now newly labeled polo shirts. The popularity of the shirt grew and in 1920 a man named Lewis Lacey opened a clothing store in Buenos Aires and sold the shirts. The shirts now had a logo depicting a polo player on a pony.
In 1926 Rene Lacoste, a famous tennis player, brought the polo shirt to the public eye in a new way, showing his audience that the shirt could be worn for more than just polo.
Lacoste’s shirts were white, which was typical of tennis clothing then, short-sleeved, made of loosely knit piqué cotton with an un-starched, flat protruding collar. It also had a buttoned placket, and a longer shirttail in back than in front. He first wore the shirt at the 1926 U.S. Open championship. Beginning in 1927, Lacoste placed a crocodile emblem on the left breast of his shirts. The American press had begun to refer to him as “the alligator”, a nickname that he embraced.
In 1933, after retiring from professional tennis, Lacoste teamed up with André Gillier, a friend who was a clothing merchandiser, to market that shirt in Europe and North America. Together, they formed the company Chemise Lacoste, and began selling their shirts, which still included the small-embroidered crocodile logo on the left breast.
By 1972, Ralph Lauren took the ideas of Lacoste’s and Lewis Lacey and included his “polo shirt” as a prominent part of his original line called Polo. While not specifically geared for use by polo players, Lauren’s shirt imitated what by that time had become the normal attire for polo players. Lauren prominently included his new attire as the “sport of kings”. On the shirts he kept Lacoste’s crocodile emblem. This worked well as a marketing tool, for subsequently, due to the immense popularity of Lauren’s clothing, a majority of English-speaking westerners began to refer to Lacoste’s tennis shirt as a “polo shirt”.
Over the latter half of the twentieth century, as standard clothing in golf became more casual, the polo shirt became adopted nearly universally as standard golf attire. Lacoste’s “tennis shirt” in various golf cuts has resulted in specific designs of the tennis shirt for golf, resulting in the moniker “golf shirt”. Golf shirts are commonly made out of polyester, cotton and polyester blends, or mercerized cotton. The plaque typically holds three or four buttons, and consequently extends lower than the typical polo neckline. The collar is typically fabricated using a stitched double-layer of the same fabric used to make the shirt, in contrast to a polo shirt collar, which is usually one-ply ribbed knit cotton.
Now the polo shirt is worn as standard attire due to its comfort. The shirts are worn by students and adults, athletes and non-athletes alike. It seems the little crocodile is here to stay.