Polo Shirt
Photo by Lena Kudryavtseva on Unsplash

The polo shirt is a reliable, timeless piece of clothing that you can wear anytime, anyplace. Although it might be timeless, it certainly has an interesting story in the timeline of history. This classic shirt might seem pretty standard to the casual viewer, but the history of the polo shirt is the product of decades of development. Historically speaking, the polo shirt can teach us a lot about how fashion trends rise. 

Before we get into the exciting history of the Polo shirt, let’s first examine why polo shirts have managed to stand the test of time for so long. To this day, a polo shirt is an excellent choice for anyone who wants to nail that casual yet classy look. Polos have survived for so long because of their incredible versatility. You can pair a polo shirt with virtually anything – including jeans, chinos, shorts… the list goes on.

It goes with everything

Polos also go well with a wide range of different footwear options. Men’s Polos go with sneakers, dress shoes, loafers, or even sandals. When you put a polo shirt on, the sky’s the limit when it comes to style choices. Perhaps one of the main reasons why polo shirts have remained so popular over the years is that there’s relatively little thought involved. You don’t have to worry about matching your polo shirt with the “correct” outfit. Instead, you can just throw everything together and feel confident that it’ll all work in tandem. 

There are so many different ways to wear a polo shirt. You can put it on underneath a blazer and some chinos for a slightly formal and polished aesthetic. Alternatively, you can keep it stylish at the beach with a polo, shorts, and a pair of white tennis shoes (and don’t forget the shades). Because a polo comes with a buttoned collar, you have a few options. You could keep one or two buttons up for a “standard” look, or you can button your collar all the way up to max out that formal vibe. 

How it All Began

History of the Polo Shirt
Photo by Marcin Dabrowski from FreeImages

As you might have guessed, the history of the polo shirt is intertwined with the history of polo – a sport that has become synonymous with elite families and the ruling class of Britain. However, polo itself was not born in Britain, but rather in India. British colonial forces were first exposed to the sport in Manipur, India, when they saw their first polo match. 

The British were enthralled by the unique game, which involves horseback riders trying to hit a ball through the other team’s goal with wooden mallets. Although the British watched their first polo match in India, the game was probably started by Iranian and Turkic peoples. Considered one of the oldest team sports in history, polo quickly became known as “the sport of kings.” 

The first variant of polo was played about 8,000 years ago. It was probably invented as a training exercise for elite cavalry units – in many cases, a king’s personal guard. This contributed to its early reputation for being a “royal” sport. Europeans probably encountered polo long before the British watched their first game in Manipur. During the time of the crusades, Saladin became a skilled polo player. This contributed to his later mastery of cavalry tactics. 

The Original Polo

Polo is a demanding (and dangerous) game, and the last thing you want is for your clothes to get in the way. When British players started playing the game for themselves, they realized that their long shirt collars were flapping in the wind and causing a distraction. To fix this issue, they started to button down their collars.

However, these garments were nothing like the polo shirts we see today. In fact, they were actually quite similar to Oxford button-down shirts, with a thicker, rough textile that was more durable than a typical shirt. In fact, some brands still refer to Oxford shirts as “the original polo,” leading to a fair bit of confusion (if you don’t know your history). 

How Tennis Transformed the Polo Shirt

Polo shirts for tennis
Picture of William Iven by Pixabay

Ready for another confusing tidbit? Although the polo shirt is named after the aforementioned “sport of kings,” the modern iteration of this garment has closer ties with tennis. In the early 1920s, tennis players would take the court wearing what were essentially Oxford button-downs – usually rolled up at the sleeves. Tennis players of the early 20th century also wore flannel trousers and neckties. 

Can you imagine seeing a professional tennis player wearing an outfit like that on the court today? Soon enough, people of that era began to realize how ridiculous this was, and tennis clothing began to evolve. 

Jean Rene Lacoste 

The man credited with inventing the modern polo shirt is Jean Rene Lacoste. A French tennis player of the highest standing, Lacoste was also a fashion genius who realized that his era’s tennis attire was far too cumbersome and stiff. First of all, Jean Rene picked the newly-developed cotton pique fabric for this new tennis shirt. The textile was soft, breathable, and perfect for athletic endeavors. 

Next, Lacoste chose a short-sleeved cut for this modernized polo, which was far more practical than rolling up one’s sleeves. Finally, he tackled the issue of the collar. Just like the rest of the shirt, the collar was made from pique cotton. Also, the shirt only included buttons down the neck and not the entire length of the shirt. 

The Polo Today

Eventually, the now-modernized polo shirt went full circle and returned to the actual game of polo. Players eagerly discarded their button-down Oxford and started wearing the comfortable shirt that Jean Rene Lacoste had designed for tennis. Interestingly enough, the polo shirt also became intertwined with the tech industry during the 1990s, as it became a common uniform within this rising field. Today, the polo is simply a timeless, classic garment that anyone can enjoy – no matter what the occasion. 

Featured Photo by Lena Kudryavtseva on Unsplash