The history of the polo shirt: the legend of an iconic fashion basic

Paulina Kulczycki

The polo shirt is one of those fashion basics that can be found in almost every wardrobe. It is without a doubt one of the most popular and timeless essentials in fashion The name alone suggests its origins – in the equestrian sport of polo. However, the story is far more complex and surprising than you might think. The first polo shirt was developed in India, yet only gained worldwide momentum and cult status decades later, through tennis in France. At SANVT, we've delved into the roots of the iconic athleisure shirt to tell the story of the polo shirt.

Today, the polo shirt is known as a sporty yet elegant must-have. Within the last century, this athleisure shirt has been elevated by various movements to become a style icon – whether as a preppy high-collar look among frat boys of the 80s, as a status symbol for the upper class, as a school uniform, as casual wear, or work wear. The history of the polo shirt is at least as diverse as the color palette in which you can buy a polo nowadays. Ok, let’s get to the bottom of the roots of this iconic fashion basic!

What does the polo shirt have to do with polo?

The game of polo has its roots in Persia, about 600 BC, and was discovered many centuries later by the English during the colonial period in India. It was brought back to England in 1871, where it quickly gained popularity and, eventually, spread around the world. As one of the most established sports of its time, a lot of attention was paid to etiquette, which is why players had to wear a shirt and jacket combination during the games. Not exactly practical or comfortable, if you ask me. So, over time, people began to look for an alternative with more mobility, without compromising on elegance.

The first version of the polo shirt, which had absolutely nothing in common with today's polo shirt, was created in India, at the beginning of the 20th century. As the subtropical climate demanded a lighter garment for the popular equestrian sport, the polo shirt was born. It was inspired by the striped, hip-length, round-neck jerseys worn by Indian aristocrats at that time.The idea of casual polo wear was subsequently adopted in England too. However, the first polo shirts in Europe still had long sleeves and were manufactured from a solid wool fabric to protect players from the wind – hence the addition of the collar as a functional and elegant element.

And when John E. Brooks, an American tailor, visited England and discovered the buttoned collar shirts, he brought them back to the USA where he even had the name patented. He debuted his creation in 1896, calling it “the first button-down polo shirt". In spite of this, the piqué polo shirt owes its worldwide fame not to polo, but to tennis.

You can read more about the fascinating cotton fabric piqué, here.

René Lacoste and his shirt

That's right. The piqué polo shirt that we know and love today – short-sleeved with a top row of buttons and a collar – was first designed for playing tennis in France in 1929. Namely, by tennis player René Lacoste, also known by his nickname "Crocodile". His design in classic white was initially intended only for himself and therefore decorated with an embroidered crocodile on the left chest. In the 1930s, his design sparked massive hype leading to the sale of up to 300,000 Lacoste shirts every year!

The design was so quickly copied and welcomed among the polo community, that the elegant athletic shirt made from the breathable piqué material became the symbol of polo - in spite of its modern design originating from tennis. 33 years later, the first polo piqué by Polo Ralph Lauren was launched on the market. With the little embroidered polo player on the left chest, it quickly achieved similar cult status as the Lacoste shirt and is now one of the most famous polo shirts in the world, alongside Lacoste’s. 

The polo shirt today

As you know, the polo shirt is now worn on far more occasions than just sports. Today, the former athleisure shirt can be found in a wide variety of styles and colors, and is considered as one of the most popular garments in the world. No wonder! After all, it perfectly bridges the gap between the T-shirt and the classic button-down shirt. It is comfortable, casual and smart at the same time. And in terms of style, the polo shirt is a true all-rounder – whether you wear it to the office with chinos, to the beach with shorts or on the after-work scene with sweatpants. We love the polo shirt especially in timeless and universal colors like white, black and navy blue, and we’re in awe of its versatility.

At SANVT, we’ve designed the perfect, sustainable polo shirt: made from a 100% high-quality, organic cotton piqué to pay tribute to the iconic shirt. Sustainable, timeless and with a minimalistic design, our polo shirt is the perfect essential for a sporty and classic look!