The History of the Polo Shirt

Like polo players cracking the ball round the field, fashion historians love to knock each other around over the origins of the polo shirt. As Eric Musgrave, author of Sharp suits explains, like a real polo match, it’s a jolly spectacle to observe, even if it’s hard to follow what’s going on at times.

What we can agree on is that today we know the polo shirt as a short-sleeved casual garment in a knitted fabric that has a short placket front carrying a few buttons and a ribbed collar. It is a versatile little fella, seen either in an endless spectrum of solid colours or in a multitude of variegated horizontal stripes. Duchamp has some cracking unicolour examples this spring in the classic pique knit, which gives a sort of waffle effect.

There is plenty of waffling among style historians about where this comfortable and ubiquitous men’s staple originated. One school of thought insists that it was developed by British polo players in India in the 19th century, who wanted a comfortable sports shirt in which to conduct their equestrian duelling. The counter argument is that the “polo shirt” of this group of saddle-sore athletes was actually more like a formal dress shirt, with long sleeves and a full buttoned-front. What everyone agrees on is that at the end of the 19th century, John Brooks, grandson of the founder of the Brooks Brothers firm in the US, came to England and saw that polo players had their shirt collars buttoned down to stop them flying up into their faces. He took the idea back to the US and created the iconic Brooks Brothers button-down formal shirt, which was described as “the polo shirt”. It was introduced in 1896 and is still sold today.

If you take a look at http://equineart.in/polo_in_princely_india.html, you’ll see some archive pictures of pukka polo players in the India of the Raj. And in among these sepia images are a few garments that do actually look like today’s modern polo shirts. But there are also others that look like modern T-shirts, henleys (collarless tops with button fronts), old-school collarless rugby shirts, and long-sleeved formal shirts. So maybe today’s style could be described as “a” polo shirt rather than “the” polo shirt.

The other major school of fashion archivists credit French tennis legend Jean René Lacoste (1904–1996) with “inventing” the modern polo shirt. He certainly knew his way round a court. In 1926 and 1927, Lacoste was ranked the world’s top tennis player. He won seven major singles titles: the French Open in 1925, 1927, and 1929, Wimbledon in 1925 and 1928, and the US Open in 1926 and 1927. He was one quarter of the French “Four Musketeers” team (with Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon and Henri Cochet) that won the Davis Cup in 1927 and 1928.

Lacoste’s nickname was “le Crocodile” and the reptilian device on the fashion line he founded was to become one of the best-known clothing brands ever. Some people say the name was given to him because he had a prominent nose, or because of the way he scuttled around the tennis court, but the man himself explained: “The American press nicknamed me ‘The Crocodile’ after a bet that I made with the captain of the French Davis Cup team. He had promised me a crocodile-skin suitcase if I won a match that was important for our team. The American public stuck to this nickname, which highlighted my tenacity on the tennis courts, never giving up my prey! So my friend Robert George drew me a crocodile which was embroidered on the blazer that I wore on the courts.”

In 1933, with his friend and significant knitwear manufacturer Andre Gillier, he founded La Societe Chemise Lacoste (The Lacoste Shirt Company), which made the same sort of tennis shirt that Lacoste had first worn in 1926 or 1927. Rather than a long-sleeved, stiff-collared shirt that was the usual tennis kit, Lacoste preferred a short-sleeved cotton piqué polo shirt. The ribbed collar, worn turned up, protected his neck from the sun and the longer shirt tail meant it stayed tucked in. The short sleeves had ribbed bands. It became a sporting classic but it was not until 1951 that Lacoste hit on a brilliant idea – he added a line of coloured shirts to the tennis whites.

So practical was Lacoste’s garment that it was picked up by other sports people – including polo players. It also became a fixture on the golf course. It should be noted also that in 1927 Edward, Prince of Wales, later and briefly Edward VIII, asked the Court hosier A J Izod to create a knitted shirt for him to wear while hunting. The result, shown in a 1936 edition of The Tailor and Cutter, looks identical to a modern polo shirt. According to the T&C, the Prince was said “that it was the finest hunting garments that had ever been made and ordered a dozen. This fashion alone kept factories in the North of England and Scotland working two or three shifts a day for many months”.

Coincidentally, the company that licensed the Lacoste look from the French company for America was known as Izod, having separately acquired the name of the London-based supplier to the Royal court. For many years, the Lacoste shirt in the US was known as an Izod.

The next, confusing, twist in the genealogy of the polo shirt came in 1972 when Ralph Lauren, formerly Ralph Lifshitz, gave his new casualwear company a suitably aristocratic and sporty name – Polo. In the 40 years since then, Lauren’s main collection has sold millions of polo shirts by Polo, all carrying a polo player device.

Comfortable, stylish, sporty, colourful, the polo shirt is a reliable essential in any man’s wardrobe. Duchamp produces its version in typically high-quality cotton and scintillating colours. Its proportions are spot-on – trim but not mean, slim but still easy-to-wear. And when the present version is this good, let’s not exert too much energy arguing about its origins.