Survival of the Fitted: Ubiquitous Polo Shirts a Long Way From Sporting Roots

A blue, white and red polo from French apparel company Lacoste, on January 9, 2013 in Paris. THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty

It is hard to think of any item of sportswear as ubiquitous as the short-sleeve cotton piqué shirt with a placket and a small collar. Today, it slips, chameleon-like, between sporting disciplines with fluid ease. In the buggy and on the green, it is known as the golf shirt. Among the mallet-wielding, centaur-like sportsmen of Argentina—as well as those who shop at Ralph Lauren—it is known as the polo. And during what the British ironically refer to as "flaming June," when first the Queen's Club and then Wimbledon's Centre Court become the focus of the nation's attention, it is known as the tennis shirt.

But whatever you call it, the shirt is a universally accepted form of dress, worn by world leaders when they want to strike a note of—often awkward—informality. The corporate world too has embraced it: Along with the company-branded rucksack, the logo polo is a core component of the delegate welcome pack at most two-day seminars or annual business retreats. It is also one of the chief pillars in the summer wardrobe of "dad wear"—an inoffensive garment spotted at countless garden barbecues, where it is accessorized with a bottle of lager welded into the fist. Such is its ubiquity that, come Wimbledon, it is almost a surprise to be reminded that it was once a genuine item of sporting apparel.

And yet, mirabile dictu, there was a time when exercise and the clothing that accompanied it were considered shockingly modern. "Exercise!" explodes Algernon, the wealthy, idle bachelor in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. "Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise." Wilde wrote that play in 1895, and yet by 1913 exercise—tennis, in particular—was center stage with Jeux, a ballet about a game of tennis, premiering in Paris, written for the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev. Costumes were by Diaghilev's longtime collaborator Léon Bakst. In the fall of 2010, London's Victoria and Albert Museum mounted an exhibition about the Ballets Russes. In the catalog essay, art historian John Bowlt wrote that "the monochrome, functional sportswear for the Tennis Players in Jeux was not so very far from the Constructivist prozodezhda (work clothing) of Liubov Popova and her close colleague, the avant-garde designer Varvara Stepanova."

It seems that Diaghilev was determined to keep constructivist-style sportswear in the cultural vanguard. It was a major feature of Le Train Bleu, the famous one-act whimsical ballet (or danced operetta, as it was called at the time) developed with Jean Cocteau and named after the luxurious express train to the Côte d'Azur. It was a significant cultural moment, not least because its dancers wore sportswear-inspired costumes designed by Coco Chanel that reflected the prevailing mania for pursuing vigorous pastimes such as tennis, golf and swimming.

Le Train Bleu premiered in 1924, the same year that a 20-year-old tennis player called René Lacoste won the French Open. While Chanel was causing a sartorial sensation onstage, Lacoste was about to do the same thing on the tennis court. He took training as seriously as a modern-day professional and adapted his clothing to suit his game. He discarded the impractical long-sleeve, button-up shirt for something that would give him an edge: a short-sleeve shirt with an unstarched collar and just a few buttons that was pulled over the head. Loose and comfortable, the shirt became a sensation when Lacoste wore it to the 1926 U.S. championships—and won. By the early 1930s, Lacoste's design was being manufactured commercially by leading knitwear-maker André Gillier and advertised under the slogan "Pour le tennis, le golf, la plage."

The fine mesh-and-honeycomb structure of the jersey knit cotton piqué made it the perfect material: It stretched, and it was soft, light, comfortable and breathable. The design was similarly practical: The longer shirt tail at the back ensured that it would stay tucked inside the trouser waistband even when the wearer was exerting himself, while the ribbed collar could be turned up to protect the back of the neck from sunburn. The little crocodile logo on the breast was a touch of marketing genius, perhaps inspired by the nickname given to Lacoste after a bet involving an alligator-skin suitcase. (Others say he was nicknamed "the Crocodile" for his boldness on the court, or for his rather large nose). In any case, Lacoste wore the crocodile logo on his tennis shirts long before it became an international symbol of preppiness.

From being a sporting classic, the shirt rapidly metamorphosed into a fashion statement emblematic of a lifestyle choice. By the mid-1930s, it was the official dress of the Riviera. Writing in 1935, one reporter commented: "Polo shirts have resulted in the oneness of the sexes and the equality of classes. Ties are gone. Personal touches, out. Individualism, abolished. Personality, extinct. The Riviera has produced a communism that would be the envy of the U.S.S.R." That writer, whose name is lost to history, would surely have been pained by the knowledge that the polo shirt outlasted the Soviet Union—and continues to be as predictable a presence at Wimbledon as strawberries and cream, and rain.