Clothing Fashion

The Origin of Polo Shirts: Tracing Their Roots in Polo and Tennis

Polo shirts are a staple in modern wardrobes, valued for their versatility, comfort, and timeless style. But how did these iconic shirts come to be? How did brands like Ralph Lauren and Psycho Bunny take over the UK by producing some of the most popular polo-style shirts on the market? To understand the origin of these iconic shirts, we must trace their roots back to the sports of polo and tennis, where functionality and fashion first intersected to create this enduring garment.

Early History: Polo and the Polo Shirt

Origins in Polo

The polo shirt’s history begins in the late 19th century with the sport of polo, which was not only popular among British soldiers stationed in India but also had significant cultural implications. Polo is a game played on horseback with mallets and balls and requires players to wear durable, comfortable clothing that allows for a wide range of motion. The traditional polo attire consisted of long-sleeved cotton shirts, which often became cumbersome during play.

To address this issue, players began to modify their shirts by adding button-down collars that could be secured to prevent flapping during intense activity. This ingenious innovation is attributed to John E. Brooks, the grandson of the founder of Brooks Brothers, who noticed the buttoned-down collars during a polo match in England. Brooks Brothers then introduced the button-down collar shirt to the American market in 1896, marking a significant development in the history of the polo shirt.

Enter René Lacoste and Tennis

While polo players were innovating their attire, another pivotal moment in the evolution of the polo shirt was occurring in the world of tennis. In the 1920s, French tennis player René Lacoste found the traditional tennis attire—long-sleeved button-up shirts, flannel trousers, and ties—impractical for the sport. Lacoste sought a more comfortable and functional alternative.

In 1926, Lacoste introduced a new style of shirt for tennis: a short-sleeved, white, loosely knit piqué cotton shirt with a soft, unstarched collar and a buttoned placket. This design, prioritizing comfort and functionality, allowed for greater ease of movement and better moisture management, significantly improving comfort during play. Lacoste first wore this revolutionary shirt at the 1926 U.S. Open, and it quickly gained popularity among tennis players.

René Lacoste, the tennis player and founder of Lacoste, once said, “I wanted something comfortable and practical to wear on the tennis court. That’s how the polo shirt was born” (Source: The Story of Lacoste).

The Rise of the Polo Shirt

Lacoste’s Innovation

Recognizing the potential of his design beyond tennis, Lacoste founded La Chemise Lacoste in 1933, producing the first mass-marketed polo shirts. The shirts featured the now-iconic crocodile logo, a nod to Lacoste’s nickname, “The Crocodile.” This marked the polo shirt’s transition from sportswear to casual wear, as it began to be embraced by a broader audience for its comfort and style.

Polo Shirts in Polo

Despite their association with tennis, polo shirts were quickly adopted by polo players due to their practical design. The breathable fabric and unrestrictive fit made them ideal for the rigorous demands of the sport. Over time, the term “polo shirt” became more widely used, eventually encompassing shirts worn for various sports and casual occasions.

Expanding Popularity

In the mid-20th century, polo shirts gained further popularity through endorsements by fashion designers and brands like Ralph Lauren, who launched his Polo line in 1972. Ralph Lauren’s branding significantly contributed to the polo shirt’s image as a symbol of preppy, all-American style. The shirt’s versatility made it a favored choice for both leisure and semi-formal settings, solidifying its place in mainstream fashion.

Ralph Lauren, a fashion designer, stated, “The polo shirt is timeless and iconic. It’s a symbol of American style and casual elegance” (Source: The New York Times: Ralph Lauren on the Polo Shirt).

Studies on Polo Shirts

  • “The History of the Polo Shirt: A 100 Year Story” explores the evolution of the polo shirt from its origins in polo to its adoption by tennis players and eventual rise to mainstream fashion (Source: A.M. Custom Clothing).
  • “The Polo Shirt: A Cultural Icon” examines the cultural significance of the polo shirt and its association with preppy style, Americana, and casual elegance (Source: The Journal of Popular Culture).

The Popularity of Polo Shirts in 2024

Contemporary Appeal

In 2024, polo shirts remain a wardrobe staple, celebrated for their blend of classic style and modern versatility. They are worn by people of all ages and genders, easily transitioning from casual to smart-casual occasions. Polo shirts are available in a wide range of colors, fabrics, and designs, catering to diverse fashion preferences and needs.

Innovations and Sustainability

Modern iterations of the polo shirt often incorporate technological advancements such as moisture-wicking fabrics, which help to keep the wearer dry and comfortable, antimicrobial treatments, which prevent the growth of bacteria and odors, and sustainable materials. Brands are increasingly focusing on eco-friendly practices, producing polo shirts from organic cotton, recycled polyester, and other sustainable resources. This shift reflects a growing consumer demand for environmentally responsible fashion without sacrificing comfort or style.

Fashion Trends

Polo shirts continue to evolve with fashion trends, showcasing their adaptability and timelessness. Oversized fits, bold patterns, and unique textures are popular among younger consumers, while classic designs remain favored by traditionalists. The polo shirt’s adaptability ensures its relevance across different style movements, from athleisure to business casual, making it a versatile and timeless wardrobe staple.

Celebrity Influence

Celebrities and online influencers play a significant role in maintaining the polo shirt’s popularity. High-profile sports, entertainment, and fashion figures frequently don polo shirts, often setting trends and inspiring their followers to incorporate these garments into their wardrobes. This influence has been instrumental in the continued popularity and evolution of polo shirts.

Growing up, my father always wore polo shirts. They were his go-to for any occasion, whether it was a family barbecue or a business meeting. I used to think they were just another piece of clothing, but as I got older, I started to appreciate their versatility and classic style. Now, polo shirts are a staple in my own wardrobe, and I often find myself reaching for one when I want to look put-together without too much effort.

Creative Expression

Louise Trotter, the creative director of Lacoste, aptly puts it, “The polo shirt is a blank canvas for self-expression. You can dress it up or down, layer it, or wear it on its own. It’s a versatile piece that can be styled in countless ways” (Source: Vogue: Louise Trotter on the Future of Lacoste).

Timeless Comfort

Michael Kors, a fashion designer, sums it up perfectly: “The polo shirt is a classic for a reason. It’s comfortable, stylish, and always looks put together” (Source: Harper’s Bazaar: Michael Kors’ Fashion Tips).


The polo shirt’s journey from the fields of polo and tennis courts to a global fashion staple is a testament to its enduring appeal and functionality. Polo shirts are worn thanks to their versatility, comfort, and timeless style. As fashion trends evolve and sustainability becomes increasingly important, the polo shirt’s enduring popularity can be attributed to its ability to adapt to these changes while maintaining its classic appeal. This versatility and adaptability ensure that the polo shirt will likely remain a beloved component of modern wardrobes for years to come.

Serena Mitchell

I'm a fashion-obsessed gal with a passion for sharing affordable finds, styling tips, and body-positive fashion inspiration. I believe great style is about feeling confident and expressing your unique personality – not about breaking the bank. When I'm not hunting down the perfect pair of jeans, you'll find me sipping coffee at my favorite local café or exploring new hiking trails with my pup.

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