The History of the Polo Shirt And How To Wear It

The polo shirt - in your head you’re thinking ‘short-sleeved sporty shirt, open-weave cotton with a soft-collar and a three-button placket-front,’ and you would be absolutely correct in doing so. That is the very definition of the polo. Of course there are variations - number of buttons in the placket, type of weave etc - but ultimately the definition of the polo shirt is, well, definite. The most democratic of menswear garments, the polo shirt is made for everyone from toddlers to fully grown adults, such is its timeless (and ageless) appeal.

At Oliver Spencer this season, we’ve created a number of styles that pay homage to the original, but have been tweaked in the Oliver Spencer way. Take our Yarmouth polo for instance: it’s a slightly more robust cotton version of the classic polo shirt, featuring a one-button fastening below the short neat collar and cut from our cotton and linen blend Kersley cloth that has a dry handle and crisp finish to the touch. We've also created it in an indigo rinse, fan pattern, forest green and check.

Our Herrera polos in pink and green are closer to the original in design terms, being a three-button short sleeved piece with a jersey waistband and contrast rib collar and cuffs. We’ve also added a chest patch pocket and contrast jersey inside the button placket for a modern touch. Similarly, our Dunmore polos follow a similar style but come in a trio of striped options. Our Hawthorn polos take leave of the classic three-button placket in favour of a more casual one-button fastening, which looks laidback when worn open. They’re a mid-weight slim fitting cotton polo with the traditional spread collar.

But the earliest origins of the polo shirt did not resemble what I’ve just described. Like many menswear styles that have stood the test of time, today’s polo shirt can be traced back to military origins, specifically to the British colonialists in late 19th century India. Keen to maintain their polo games whilst abroad, British officers would play in their loose fitting cotton shirts with large spread collars, which happened to be a nuisance, flapping about in their faces while on horseback. To prevent this, they invented what we know now as the button-down collar.

The next stage of the evolution of the polo shirt befalls at the enterprise of an ambitious businessman by the name of John E. Brooks, the grandson of Henry Sands Brooks, who founded the Brooks Brothers company in 1818. Brooks the grandson was a great fan of the English upper classes and saw an opportunity to export their polished sartorial styles to the New World. It was on a trip to the UK in the 1890s that Brooks became enamoured with these new ‘polo shirts’ and immediately set out to produce his own back in the US. So the very first mass-produced polo shirts were not the polo shirts we come to think of today. The next step of the evolution required a French sportsman looking for an edge…

 

The tennis star with court style and an eye for commerce

One of the best known and famous sports stars of the 1920s was none other than René Lacoste, the French tennis player who racked up an embarrassment of titles including, seven Grand Slam singles titles at the French, American, and British championships, a member of the Davis Cup-winning French team in 1927 and 1928, and the world’s top seeded player in 1926 and 1927. But aside from his competitive prowess, Lacoste can also be regarding as one of the first truly modern sportsman because he understood the commerce of the sport off the court as much as the game itself on the court. His popularity did not just hinge on whether he won and lost but also on how good he looked while doing so.

Rene Lacoste

Lacoste was always looking for an edge and he saw one in his attire. Whereas nearly all players of the time wore a long-sleeved shirt, Lacoste broke the mould by opting for a shirt of his own design in order to improve his game - what he came up with is the modern polo shirt, soft, breathable and allowing more freedom of movement in his gameplay. By the early 30s, La Chemise Lacoste and its crocodile logo was up and running. The crocodile is a story in itself: it was a nickname that he picked up after winning a wager with the Captain of the French Davis Cup team, in which the prize was an alligator-skin suitcase. When he returned to France, the alligator had morphed into a crocodile and Lacoste embraced it as his personal brand identity. By placing it on the left breast of his polo shirt range, Lacoste also took the title of being one of the very first brands to adopt a logo on the outside of the garment.

 

The polo turns preppy

The final chapter in the evolution of the polo shirts, falls squarely at the feet of Ralph Lauren who saw how it had become wholly adopted by sporty collegiate types and thus launched his own Polo range in 1967. The rest is history. From the Ivy League style it became such a part of, to the English terraces of the 80s and 90s, the polo shirt transcended all classes, being one of the most democratic items of clothing ever created. In short, it’s a genius piece of design, with all the casual comforts of the t-shirt but with that touch of formality with the collar. While the originals were made in a pique cotton, these days you’ll find the polo shirt constructed from many different types of fibre and in varying degrees of luxury.

How to wear the polo shirt

It would be far quicker to write about the number of ways you CAN’T style the polo shirt, but we’ll distill it for you:

With casual tailoring: ditch the classic shirt for a less formal summer iteration of the suit or separates. We’d recommend going for a tonal style in a block colour or a pastel of a similar hue. The point of tailoring is the flattering silhouette so you don’t want to be competing with a loud patterned polo (geomatric patterns, especially stripes, are fine). So if you’re going to wear a navy unstructured blazer, such as our Theobald jacket in Hesketh Navy, complement it with a similarly navy or blue tone polo. Failing that, opt for a neutral hue to contrast the blue - white, pale yellow, grey, or pastel shades will all bring out the tones in the suit.

With a preppy aesthetic: You can go all-out Dead Poets Society and inject a bit of Ivy League finesse into your wardrobe with the addition of a varsity jacket, slouchy cardigan or chore jacket layered upon a polo. This time you can be a bit more expansive with your choices - striped polos such as our Hawthorn and Dunmore styles will add a collegiate feel to your look.

With a beer in the park: The polo might have been appropriated by the ‘50s American intelligentsia but it’s also right at home laying about in the park with a few cans of Red Stripe. Casual judo pants or cotton shorts worn with Quoddy’s Maliseet Oxfords will ensure you don’t look like you’ve just rolled off the terraces.

 

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