Original polo shirts being used for polo

The History of the Polo Shirt: A 100 Year Story

A History of the Polo Shirt 

Polo shirts are a staple in many people’s wardrobes today. They are a versatile garment that can take you from the golf course to the nightclub. Personalised polo shirts with print or embroidery also make for professional staff or team uniforms. The polo shirt may seem to be a fairly modern invention due to the technical fabrics used in their construction however, they have a 100-year long history and have evolved many times before becoming the modern style we know today. 

The earliest known polo shirt was created in India in the early 19th Century. The equestrian sport of polo, often played in high temperatures, required a lightweight and breathable garment, and was inspired by the round-neck tunics worn by Indian aristocrats at the time. Due to the British occupation of India during this time, the style was adopted and brought over to England. However, the British style of polo shirts were made from a heavy wool fabric and featured the addition of a collar to protect the players from the harsh British weather.

Towards the end of the 1800’s, an American haberdasher named John E. Brooks visited England and was greatly inspired by the dress of the British upper class. He noticed that the collars of British polo players’ shirts had buttons sewn on them to keep them in place during matches. Inspired by this innovation, upon his return to America, Brooks used the idea to start manufacturing the first attached collar shirts in the US.

The Oxford Cotton Button Down (OCBD) was born and continues to be manufactured to this day, featuring the slogan ‘The Original Polo Shirt’ on its label. However, when we think of a polo shirt, the OCBD is not generally what springs to mind. Rather, we think of a soft-collared, three-button, cotton shirt that is favoured by modern-day golf or tennis players. A garment that can be attributed to the French tennis player René Lacoste.

The Re-Invention of the Polo Shirt

In the early 20th Century, a long-sleeved shirt and tie was the standard dress for tennis players. Lacoste decided that he could not play to the best of his ability in this restrictive attire, so he began to wear his self-designed jersey petite pique. The version he wore of this garment in the 1926 US Open Championship is the originator of the modern polo shirt that we know today.

Lacoste’s unique garment design solved many of traditional tennis attire’s problems:

  • Short sleeves instead of long sleeves that would roll down during game play
  • The collar could be upturned to protect the neck from the sun or buttoned down in harsh weather
  • The jersey cotton material was breathable and durable
  • A long-length ‘tennis tail’ could be tucked in to trousers

In 1933, the Chemise Lacoste company was formed and began to sell these garments across North America and Europe. Lacoste’s shirt was adopted by polo players and soon became connected to the sport. Quickly, the Lacoste crocodile logo became synonymous with the garment, a symbol that derived from Lacoste’s nickname which he picked up when he won a bet that resulted in him being awarded a crocodile hide suitcase.

The use of a visible logo cemented Lacoste as one of the first brands to place a logo on the outside of a garment. The crocodile logo became a symbol of upper-class sport and Lacoste was quickly adopted by preppy American socialites as the brand spread around the world.

In the 1970’s, Ralph Lauren continued the connection of Lacoste’s sport and leisure when he showcased a clothing line that featured the polo shirt as the main piece. Lauren had been inspired by Lacoste’s garment when a New York department store sales assistant explained that the fabric would not fade or show any signs of wear.

Lauren and his team saw the merit in this product and in 1972 launched a similar mesh shirt in a wide variety of colours, this time with an iconic pony logo. The garment has been the company’s most sold product for the last 5 decades.

Throughout the years, the polo shirt has been adopted by different social groups around the world. Printed polo shirts are a great example of the power of branding, the same product with a different logo emblazoned across the chest can project very different messages. On the one hand you have Lacoste and Lauren’s branded polos worn by the sporty elite or aspirational socialites but on the other hand, Fred Perry’s polos have been worn as unofficial uniforms by rebellious youth groups throughout the 80’s and 90’s.

 The Polo Shirt Today

Today, a typical polo is made of a knitted fabric known as a pique weave. This special type of weave can be constructed in different patterns such as waffle, honeycomb and bird’s eye which give the fabrics texture whilst the construction creates an ‘aerated’ weave, allowing the fabric to have superior breathability which is perfect for athletes who generate a lot of heat.

Golfers typically wear a polo constructed of jersey fabrics with a less textured and softer weave, blended with a mix of polyester, cotton and elastane. The fabric blend ensures a dynamic garment with stretch for increased mobility, whilst the cotton and polyester allows for fast wicking moisture management.

A polo for workwear would typically be made from a high percentage of cotton material. The cotton weave creates a garment that is durable and easily cared for, perfect for enduring the work-day whilst creating a smart alternative to a T-shirt for staff uniforms.

Custom Polo Shirts

Much like the t-shirt, the polo has a long and diverse history, evolving many times before becoming the garment that we know today. The vast range of fabrics and styles create a versatile and powerful garment that can indicate status in society, affiliation with certain sports or can be used as humble yet smart workwear.

Custom embroidered clothing is becoming a popular product for businesses. Embroidered polo shirts can make smart uniforms for a business as you can have your logo or company name embroidered on to the garment, creating a professional, hard-wearing and effective method of advertising. If you would like to find out more about how we can help with business polo shirt printing or ordering embroidered workwear online, contact us and we will be happy to help.