What is a Tennis Shirt?

G. Wiesen

A tennis shirt, often referred to as a polo shirt or simply a polo, is a style of shirt developed initially for wear during tennis matches but has since spread to various sports and other fields as a garment of preference. Designed as a short sleeved t-shaped shirt with a collar and a short placket, usually with only two or three buttons, tennis shirts were intended to meet the needs of tennis players. Since their invention, however, the use of these garments has spread to other areas and they have been featured in a number of different fashion collections.

Tennis shirts were originally created for the game of tennis.
Tennis shirts were originally created for the game of tennis.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, men would typically wear long-sleeved, white, full buttoned shirts while playing tennis. These were commonly worn with heavy flannel pants, and the entire outfit was not tremendously suitable for extensive athletic activity. The French tennis champion René Lacoste designed a new style of garment that would allow greater comfort and movement and would overall better serve the needs of a person playing tennis.

Lacoste designed his first tennis shirt to have short sleeves, rather than the long sleeves that were traditionally worn rolled up and would come unrolled throughout a match. He included a collar that would help to absorb sweat and could be flipped up to keep sunlight off the back of his neck. A short placket at the neckline would allow the shirt to be buttoned for greater modesty, or slightly unbuttoned to allow a wearer to cool off during a match. Lacoste used a knitted fabric, specifically piqué cotton, rather than a woven material, for greater durability and because it breathed better to help cool the wearer off during play.

The original tennis shirt designed by Lacoste also included a small alligator embroidered into the front at the chest, as American journalists had begun referring to him as “the alligator” or “the crocodile.” His original design for the tennis shirt was immediately noticed by other players, and Lacoste soon partnered with a clothing merchandiser to mass produce his garment. The shirt was quite successful among a number of different sports players, especially polo players, who wore the shirt so often that the design came to be known more often as a polo shirt than a tennis shirt in many different regions.

In the late 20th century, the tennis shirt was featured in fashions by designers like Ralph Lauren and rose to popularity among technology businesses and other office environments as the standard for “business casual” fashion. Tennis shirts are also often worn in the retail industry, where employers desire a garment that is more professional than a plain t-shirt, but is not as formal as a buttoned dress shirt. Many landscapers and other professionals who work outdoors also often prefer tennis shirts as they still provide breathability to help keep a wearer cool, while the knit fabric is rugged and durable.

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