Now a staple in the modern day preppy fashion, the history of the polo shirt is largely rooted in the search for practicality in high-class sports such as tennis, golf and (believe it or not), polo.
The origin of these now iconic shirts is disputed; they’re thought to either originate with the sport polo and pioneered by Brooks Brothers, or on the other hand stemming from tennis, courtesy of Rene Lacoste.
Although similar stories, the division may possibly come from brand competition, both company’s laying claim to the creation of a classic. Either way, both tales seem viable, so we’ll leave it up to you to decide.
Rene Lacoste and Tennis
During the 1920’s, a Frenchman by the name Rene Lacoste was dominating the sport of tennis, with no less than seven Grand Slam medals beneath his belt throughout his career. Despite his success, Lacoste was dissatisfied with the tennis attire of the time which consisted of long sleeved woven shirts, long flannel trousers and a necktie.
For such a physical activity, the uniform was restrictive and overbearing.
Rene eventually set about designing his own uniform, creating a short sleeved shirt out of breathable fabric, complete with the polo’s defining collar and buttons; the collar to protect the neck from sunburn and the buttons to allow air to circulate around the body, as well as being able to be fastened to prevent flapping as the players ran.
Lacoste debuted his new design in the 1926 US Open, later sewing a crocodile emblem to the breast in recognition of his nickname ‘The Crocodile’.
Upon retiring, Rene teamed up with a friend in the clothing industry and the rest, as you can imagine, is history.
Brooks Brothers and Polo
The alternative history predates the former, originating in the 1800s in the birthplace of polo itself – India. After the first official polo clubs were established, attention turned to the cumbersome attire of the players; heavy long sleeve shirts made from thick cotton.
Dissatisfied with this, particularly given the physical nature of polo and the humid climate of India, players took to designing their own cooler attire. They cropped the sleeves and, like Rene, sewed collars onto their shirts with buttons, again so as to stop flapping in the wind.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Brooks Brother’s John E. Brooks – grandson to the original founder – embarked on a buying trip to Europe where the makeshift polo shirt design had found it’s way.
Impressed by the practicality of a button collar when watching a polo match on his trip, John took the idea back to the US with him and began applying the design to dress shirts, releasing the first official button-down polo shirt in 1896; some twenty years prior to that of Lacoste.
Written by Aaron Thompson