One cannot speak of the history of the modern day polo shirt without discussing the evolution of dress codes in the sport of tennis. Why? Well, because the polo shirt, despite its name, was actually invented by a tennis player for other tennis players. But today, the polo shirt can be found everywhere (in fact, most often off the tennis court) and is available for everyone to enjoy.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, tennis players sported what were then known as “tennis whites” while playing the game. These “whites,” which included flannel pants, a white, button up shirt (long sleeved), and a tie, frankly had no place on a tennis court, yet, were accepted and worn by the tennis community. That is, until René Lacoste decided to spice things up. And when he finished, he had not only forever changed the way in generations of men and women play tennis, he also invented what we today know to be the modern polo shirt. (see note at end of article).
In 1926, Lacoste shook up the tennis world when he, for the first time ever, wore what we today would call, “a polo shirt,” to the 1926 U.S. Open Championship. Lacoste had enough of being uncomfortable while playing the game he loved and thus, created a shirt that: 1) had short sleeves, which was a welcome change from the long sleeve shirts of before, that would often interfere with movement; 2) included a collar that, unlike its starched predecessor, was easy to maneuver and adjust throughout the course of a match; 3) was made of a breathable piqué cotton that was also durable; and 4) was not complete without the famous “tennis tail," which prevented the shirt from coming untucked during the course of a match.
Lacoste's daring outfit took the sporting world by storm and quite rapidly, other tennis players followed suit, sporting the “polo shirt” on the reg. Shortly after, polo players also began wearing these shirts and soon, the term, “polo shirt,” previously used to refer to the long sleeved button down shirt worn by polo and tennis players alike, came to represent what we today know as “the polo shirt.” (Interesting aside: despite being invented by tennis players, the shirt is still referred to as a “polo” shirt)
The “polo” shirt gradually grew in popularity over time, but was introduced into mainstream culture in a rather abrupt manner when in 1972, when Ralph Lauren prominently included the item in his Polo line. Since that time, the shirt has not only become a mainstay at golf courses and corporate retreats worldwide, it has also become a fixture in the wardrobes of “casual yet cool” men, women, and children.
One thing's for sure: the polo shirt has come a long way.
Note: Though, in 1923, Lewis Lacey created a short-sleeved sports shirt with a mounted polo player over the heart, for his Hurlingham Polo Team, those shirts were not what we today would call, a “polo shirt.”