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The Classic Polo Is Simply Design Genius, Thank You René Lacoste!

Originally Posted: August 20, 2010

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

  |   2 Comments · Print Article

Rene Lacoste sports his now famous Polo shirt. (lacoste.com)

Southampton - As we are in the throws of the Mercedes-Benz Polo Challenge here in the Hamptons, I thought I might address the issue of the shirt that shares the same name with the sport. The polo shirt is as iconic to Hamptons summer de rigueur as the navy blazer, however, it origins have absolutely nothing to do with the sport of polo.

Ralph Lauren Polo shirt. (ralphlauren.com)

The polo shirt is one of those rare pieces of apparel to which one can attach very detailed specifics of origin, unlike so many other styles of men's apparel that emerged from ancient military dress traditions that transformed over the years into what we now accept as fashion. No, the polo shirt is less than 100 years old and it was created out of pure necessity by, no surprise here, a Frenchman.

Jean René Lacoste, who is best known as René Lacoste, was one of the world's greatest tennis players in the 1920s - having won seven grand slam titles between 1925 and 1929. Finding the accepted tennis shirt of the day (long sleeved, starched white cotton) too cumbersome to play in, he designed the shirt we now call the polo. It was in fact first called simply and appropriately a tennis shirt.

Breathtaking in its simplicity and brilliant in its pure logic of design, it was a shirt created for the sole purpose of playing tennis and its construction incorporated all the elements of the game. It is as pure in its genius of design as the Zippo lighter or the mousetrap.

Made from knit piqué cotton, the shirt breathed during the intense play of the match and in turn kept the player cool. The short cuffed sleeves eliminated the problems of the long sleeves, which players usually rolled up, from rolling down during play. The soft collar was obviously more comfortable and could be turned up to prevent sunburn of the neck. The two button placket could be unbuttoned to create even more comfort, while still keeping the collar up. Finally, the ultimate stroke of genius in my opinion, the tail of the shirt was longer than the front. This kept the shirt from coming out of the pants (tennis players were not yet wearing shorts) with the extended stretch of the body during a serve.

The classic Lacoste polo shirt. (lacoste.com)

Viola, the perfect shirt for tennis play had been created, which eventually became the perfect shirt for golf, a long sleeve version with padded sleeves for rugby and, of course, perfect for polo as well. Why it came to be known as the polo shirt is anyone's guess, as to my knowledge Lacoste was not a polo player, certainly not one of any notoriety.

Lacoste debuted the shirt at the 1926 U.S. Open and in 1927 he embroidered a crocodile on the front left breast of the shirt, as he had been dubbed "The Crocodile" by the American press, which quickly caught on with his fans and the worldwide media.

In 1933, after Lacoste retired, he went into partnership with his friend Andre Gillier, a clothier, and marketed his shirt in Europe and North America, which was an instant success. The iconic emblem of the Lacoste brand, the crocodile, has also been referred to as an alligator over the years, but the Lacoste company website refers to it as a crocodile and that is good enough for me. It is often referred to as an Izod shirt, but that came from an American marketing partnership in the 1950s, but that partnership ended in 1993 and the Lacoste and Izod brand of shirts are now two distinctly different entities.

The shirt has been duplicated by companies from Brooks Brothers to Vineyard Vines, with Ralph Lauren and their logo of a pony riding polo player probably having the largest market share of polo shirt sales worldwide. However, the original Lacoste Chemise remains hugely popular in Europe and, obviously, particularly in France.

Vineyard Vines polo shirts. (vineyardvines.com)

Although each manufacturer sticks to the basic original design, there are subtle differences in many of the brands of polo shirts in regards to sleeve length, tail length, tightness of the sleeve band, stiffness of the neck collar and the number of buttons on the placket and its length. There are also different blends of cotton, but that is for another discussion. All this comes down to a matter of taste, but I will share with you my personal preferences.

I prefer my sleeve to be as short and the sleeve band as tight as possible. Nothing annoys me more than having to pull up a sleeve that is almost to my elbow when I am swinging a golf club or serving a tennis ball. The tail must be longer than the front of the shirt; some brands are actually of equal length. I wear my collar up, therefore the stiffer the collar the better and a two button placket, rather than a three button, helps facilitate that preference.

As an aside, I would like pay homage to two friends of mine who created one of the best versions of the polo shirt I have ever owned, Tom and Bruce Hoar. These two entrepreneurial North Shore brothers created an American made classic clothing line in the 1990s, Hoar Clothing, that was nothing short of superb, particularly their polo. From the stiffness of the collar to the length of the tail to the weight of the cotton to the tortoise shell buttons, it was a masterpiece of detail and design. Unfortunately the business did not survive, but I wish a few of their polos had because I'd be wearing one now.

That said, I recommend three brands of polo shirts, the original Lacoste, Ralph Lauren and the Vineyard Vines "collegiate" fit. With the exception of the original Lacoste, which I think hits all the elements perfectly, the RL and VV are right on in different degrees of perfection of the varying elements of the classic polo shirt first created in 1926.

Again it comes down to personal preference. However, what is unmistakably is that this shirt of genius design and perfect simplicity will never go out of style, particularly here in the Hamptons. Thank You René Lacoste!

Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline

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Guest (Guest) from Southampton says::
Actually, it was the polo players themselves that added the buttons at the collar and Brooks Brothers adopted it in 1896. It had long sleeves and was made from heavy Oxford cloth cotton, hense the BB shirt eventually came to be called the Oxford. There is no comparison whatsoever between the the shirt originally worn by polo players and the shirt invented for tennis by Lacoste that came to be known as the polo shirt except that after he created it, polo players started wearing it. DH
Aug 30, 2010 3:03 pm

Guest (Guest) from Mt. Sinai says::
It's called the polo shirt because it was orginally designed for polo and is actually an outgrowth of the calssic button down Oxford shirt. Polo players would wear these shirts while playing; the only trouble was, the collars kept flying into their faces as they bent ove their horse to knock the ball. So some sharpie at Brooks Brothers got the idea to button the collars down onto the shirt so they would no longer fly. Hence the polo shirt. Rene Lacoste's claim to fame is that he helped develop the knit fabric that went into the newfangled polo shirt--a kind of open weave mesh that breathed better than the tightly woven Oxford cloth used heretofore. For his involvement, the shirting fabric was named after him. The reason for the cocodile symbol was that it was a reflection of how fast and agile he moved on the tennis court. Personally, I think the crocodile symbol reflected his wide, toothy grin.
Aug 21, 2010 3:23 pm


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