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“Do You Speak Polo?”

By -Ron Burg

Polo shirts are not what they used to be. Then again, most people are not truly familiar with what they did or use to be. Today, we will take a brief look at the history of the polo shirt and finish with an understanding the modern “types” of this classic wardrobe favorite. After all, unless you “speak polo” how are you supposed to know what pique is or even how to pronounce it?



The polo shirt was not invented or created for the game of polo as one might expect. It was not even created by Ralph Lauren. The polo shirt can trace its roots back to the early 1900s and a man known as “The Alligator.”

Jean Rene Lacoste was a tennis player. During his heyday, the tennis outfits were nothing like the ones worn today. If fact, the players often wore button up shirts with long sleeves that would have to be rolled up. Many times the players even wore ties. Lacoste was not just any tennis player; he was ranked as the best in the world. As tennis became more and more competitive, Lacoste became increasingly unhappy with the clothing he had to wear, and he decided to do something about it.


Lacoste’s answer to his predicament was to cut off the sleeves of the shirt, unbutton and unstarch the collar, and add a longer back so the shirt could be tucked in. Instead of a full button-up shirt, he left only the collar open. In addition to the style changes, Lacoste opted for a brand new style of material that had recently been developed in England – pique cotton. In contrast to regular cotton, pique cotton was a weave that added strength, durability, and breathability. To top things off, Lacoste added an alligator to the shirt. Nobody is certain why they called Lacoste the alligator, but since that was his nickname, he thought it fitting that his new shirt should bear his mark.

The Lacoste tennis shirt was introduced during the 1926 U.S. Open Tennis Championships. Lacoste won. Not only did he take home the trophy, but he had made a mark on sports fashion that would revolutionize the world.


Polo players (ah! – here comes the tie to polo) were the first athletes outside of tennis to notice the advantage of the new form of shirt. They especially liked the collar, which could be turned up to protect their necks from the sun. They had no idea they were starting a fashion trend that would be going strong nearly a century later.  Lacoste started The Lacoste Shirt Company in 1933 with a friend, and soon his shirts were the rage of sportsmen everywhere. The original polos were only available in white, but, by the 1950s, Lacoste decided to invest in a daring fashion statement and offer the shirts in a variety of colors. His bet paid off, and he was rewarded with success that crossed the Atlantic and impacted America. One of the highlights which led to the success of the brand was then U.S. President Eisenhower wearing one of Lacoste’s polos to play golf.


The polo shirt remained a symbol of the elite class for the next 30 years. Then, Ralph Lauren came along in the 1970s and created the Polo brand. He used the polo-style shirt as one of the foundations of his sophisticated casual collection. By the 1980s, the polo was synonymous with Polo by Ralph Lauren and became of staple of yuppies everywhere.

Over the next several decades, the polo shirt evolved and became the standard for sport and for casual wear. The improvements in material made the shirts cooler, longer lasting, and tailored for specific uses. Much as a pique polo was superior to cotton in the 1930s, the shirts that professional athletes wear today are in a league of their own.


Thankfully, with the saturation of the marketplace, the prices for polo shirts have come down, and now even great quality polo shirts can be purchased for next to nothing. Additionally, while the original shirts all had icons on them, blank polos can now be purchased so they can be either worn as-is or customized for an event or organization.

Let’s take a look at some of the words associated with modern polo shirts:


Pique Knit: This is the knit process that started it all. Pronounced “pee – kay,” the dictionary defines this type of material as “a weaving style, normally used with cotton yarn, which is characterized by raised parallel cords or fine ribbing.” As mentioned earlier, this style of weave breathes much better than plain cotton.

Jersey Knit: Jersey does not refer to New Jersey or the jersey that is worn for sports. Instead, Jersey refers to a place in the Channel Islands where the Jersey-style of material was manufactured. In the 1700s, Jersey material would have been mostly wool. Today, it can be made of any type of material. Jersey knitting is a stretchy, single knitting that is lightweight and common in t-shirts, light dresses, and light tops, including those in the polo style.

Dryblend: With the advent of polyester, manufacturers have experimented with the blending of materials to make clothing softer, more durable, or possess other unique properties. Dryblend is a proprietary blend of 50 percent cotton and 50 percent polyester. The combination of the materials adds a superior moisture wicking property to the shirts to keep the wearer dryer. The Dry-blend material may be used to create jersey, pique, or even fleece clothing.

Performance: Performance materials are synthetic fibers woven and treated in any number of ways to create clothing for special purposes. Most performance clothing is designed for athletic wear and has a number or qualities such as moisture wicking, anti-microbial, no bad smell, anti-fungal, anti-snag, and the like. The shirts are often not as soft as a cotton pique, but tend to wick moisture away better during active events.

With your newfound information, you can now tackle the world of fashion. Whether you seek the original Lacoste with the iconic alligator, the classic Ralph Lauren Polo with the horse and polo player on the breast, or fancy a tremendous bit of savings by shopping for the best material and price, and not the tiny emblem, you have the knowledge to buy wisely.

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