Before the polo shirt came in a rainbow of sorbet hues, before frat boys ever thought to pop its collar, before it became synonymous with upper-class prep or back-to-school uniforms, the polo shirt was, simply, the top worn during polo matches, hence the origin of its name.
The sport in its modern form can be traced back to Manipur, a state in Northeast India, in the 19th century, which was then adopted and disseminated by the British military officers in the mid-1800s. The traditional polo uniform during this time featured long-sleeve cotton shirts, but uncomfortable with how the collar flapped during the game, the players attached buttons to secure them in place. Thus, the button-down polo shirt was born.
When John E. Brooks, a Brooks Brother legacy, caught wind of the button-down polo shirt while watching a polo match in England, he was so taken by it that he affixed button-down collars on all Brooks Brother dress shirts upon his return to the U.S. Hailed as “the original button-down polo shirt,” it made its debut in 1896 to enormous success, going on to change the landscape of menswear forever.
It was Argentinian polo star Lewis Lacey, though, who was responsible for conceiving the polo player logo. In 1920, he opened a sports shop in Buenos Aires, selling shirts branded with a polo player on a pony.
But the polo shirt as we know it today didn’t arrive until 1933. French tennis star Jean René Lacoste, whose on-court moniker was “le Crocodile” due to his durability (though there are reports that the name derived from a bet made with the French Davis Cup captain, in which he would be gifted a crocodile-skin suitcase if he won a match), sought to improve the tennis uniform with a pique cotton short-sleeve style (a practical solution to rolled-up sleeve) that he embroidered with a tiny crocodile logo on the breast.
In 1951, Lacoste struck a partnership with a U.S. garment manufacturer Izod, a company owned by Vin Draddy and named after London tailor Jack Izod, to bring his crocodile-branded polo shirts stateside. At the same time, British tennis star Fred Perry launched his version: a white polo branded with a laurel wreath, a logo inspired by the Wimbledon symbol. Within a few years, the Lacoste and Fred Perry polos were seen worn under college sports jackets as part of the preppy uniform, which marked not only the shirt’s transition from an on-court fixture to an everyday staple, but also the creation of a new fashion category—sportswear.
Of course, no write-up of the polo would be complete without Ralph Lauren, the man who famously transformed the shirt into a worldwide phenom. It started, first, with the launch of his label Polo Ralph Lauren—named after the sport that he believed embodied the aspirational lifestyle he was striving to sell—in 1967. Five years later, he introduced his polo rider-embroidered polo—and it wasn’t long before polo the shirt and Polo the brand would become one and the same. It would come to symbolize affluence, pedigree, prep, and, eventually, the American Dream.
But rappers in the ‘80s and ‘90s took the polo and made it their own, subverting the one-percent by taking it to the streets (the most famous being members of the Brooklyn-based Lo-Life Crew, who would run into Ralph Lauren stores and steal as much Polo merch as they could). “The whole idea of hip-hop culture is taking something mainstream and disrupting it; it’s a little irreverent—you see it with a lot of symbols in hip-hop,” explained Tasha Lewis, assistant professor of fashion design management at Cornell University, who has studied hip-hop and fashion for 12 years. “An aspirational, upper-class lifestyle brand like Ralph Lauren may not market to them, but hip-hop is a reflection of our culture in terms of materialism and brand consciousness, so by wearing it, it signifies that you’ve made it, that you’ve arrived.”
After the prep trend in early aughts (when pearls, plaid skirts, and pink polos were a thing—a look made famous by preppy onscreen characters like Marissa Cooper on The O.C.), polos, for the most part, laid low—until now.
Marc Jacobs reimagined them in retro Lurex-flecked argyle, complete with gold chains for Fall/Winter 2017, while Rihanna sent out teeny-tiny rugby polos for Fenty x Puma the same season, with the National Library of France as a fitting backdrop. And prep continued into Spring/Summer 2018: an outsized printed version at Marni, a polo dress distressed and embellished with feathers at Maison Margiela, and OG styles deconstructed and rendered as off-shoulder tops at Lacoste—thus proving that, in fashion, whatever’s old is new again.END
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