The polo shirt would be better named the tennis shirt, since it was first designed by Jean René Lacoste, a world-class tennis player who was fondly called the alligator or crocodile because of his vicious playing tactics. Lacoste, like many tennis players in the early 20th century, felt tennis garb was restrictive, as players had to wear long sleeved shirts and ties. In 1929, Lacoste made the polo or tennis shirt out of pique cotton in a loose knit, with a button down collar that could be flipped up for extra sun protection, and thankfully no tie.
Polo players did have button down collars as far back as the late 19th century, but Lacoste’s design was preferable. By the mid 1930s, most polo players wore Lacoste’s design, and the name polo shirt stuck. The modern version may or may not feature a button down color, is most likely to be made of cotton knit, has two to three upper buttons and short sleeves.
The polo shirt forms part of the traditional sportswear for several major sports. Tennis players still wear these shirts, as do polo players and golfers. Rugby players also wear a variant of this shirt.
As dressing became less formal for men, the polo shirt migrated into popular culture as semi-casual wear. Ralph Lauren’s brand Polo was helpful in setting the style of the polo firmly in place in the 1950s. These shirts have even become popular in school uniforms for private, and often Catholic schools. While most private schools in the 1970s insisted on boys wearing the more standard non-knit cotton button down, now many simply require a polo shirt in the color the school wears.
In the 1980s, Lacoste brand polo shirts were for a time, a status symbol for both young men and women. Though you could certainly get less expensive polos, wearing the Lacoste with its tiny alligator insignia on the chest was considered highly fashionable. It was associated with the 1980s “Preppy” look.
The modern polo shirt is still considered popular both in sports and for regular dressing. Men may prefer them to T-shirts since the collar makes them just a bit dressier. In addition to being made out of cotton knit, some include silk or wool knits. The less expensive versions are likely to be made of a cotton/polyester blend, although it may be worthwhile to pay a little more for a 100% cotton shirt over the blended shirt because it tends to breathe better.