Next month, when the world’s best tennis players descend on New York for the U.S. Open, nearly every man competing will be wearing a polo shirt. That’s pretty remarkable for several reasons. For starters, this particular piece of performance wear has been around for nearly a century. And while there’s been countless iterations of it, the shirt has fundamentally remained unchanged since its inception. Even more interesting is the fact that the polo shirt originally debuted at the U.S. Open.
Like many great innovations, the knit tennis shirt was born out of frustration. You see, in the early 20th century, there were fairly rigid dress codes when it came to sports. Tennis players at the time wore starched, long-sleeved oxford shirts - often with ties. Imagine playing your heart out on the court, dressed in what a banker wears to the office. Not surprisingly, players had a tough time, encumbered by the design of their “sports attire.”
Rene Lacoste, a world renown star by the time he was 20, wasn’t really a fan of rules. The 7-time Grand Slam champion had a strong will and reputation for challenging conventions. He would later go on to revolutionize the game of tennis with such inventions as the ball machine and the steel racket, but it was his innovation while he was still playing that had the largest impact on the sport and the world as a whole. It's the reason why most of us know his name today.
Lacoste set out to make a more comfortable, short-sleeve style of shirt to wear on the court. He was inspired by Anglo-Indian polo players, who managed to play in extreme heat and bright sun thanks to their lightweight pique cotton jerseys. The knit fabric was made up of tiny waffle-knit holes, which not only let air circulate around the body but, perhaps even more importantly, absorb sweat and let it evaporate.
In 1926, Lacoste finalized the perfect polo shirt for himself. A white, short-sleeve design with a soft but substantial ribbed collar he could fold up to block the sun, a buttoned placket and a longer shirttail in back than in front (known today as a tennis tail). And because he was dubbed "the crocodile" by the American press, he embroidered a small crocodile emblem on the chest.
The design went against the grain but the lightweight, breathable shirt offered unmatched freedom of movement on the court. He surprised spectators in his new relaxed shirt as he smashed his way to consecutive U.S. Open wins in 1926 and 1927. The first of its kind, Lacoste’s tennis shirt was the blueprint for the modern day polo shirt. By 1933, he’d retired and partnered with a French apparel company to start selling them to the public.
After that, the polo became the uniform for all competing players on both the tennis court and the golf course. Who would've guessed it would become such an icon of casual American style, with countless versions from nearly every brand on the market? Over the past decade the shirt has been spotted on everyone from JFK and Arnold Palmer to Steve McQueen and several James Bonds.
Of course, over the years, slight tweaks have been made. Especially for those polos in the performance space. Our new Venture polos, for example, are tailored with a streamlined buttonless placket while the raglan sleeves along the back shoulders provide ultimate ease of movement. Cut from a special COOLMAX fabric - in both short and long sleeves - the shirts help regulate your body temperature and keep you feeling fresh without looking overly “technical.” Whether you're wearing it on the court with some tennis shoes, with a pair of shorts and sandals or under a summer-weight suit, no warm weather wardrobe is complete without one.
FYI: Arthur Ashe stadium is the largest “tennis specific” stadium in the world. It seats 23,771 people.