Despite their name, Lacoste polo shirts are actually direct descendants of the original cotton “tennis whites” worn in the late nineteen century.
The “tennis whites” shirt style was defined by a long-sleeved buttoned-up front, normally worn with the narrow sleeves rolled up. Although this seems like a very limiting shirt choice for athletes by today’s standards, tennis whites were considered very informal and quite “sporty” in their day.
But French tennis champion René Lacoste thought he could improve upon the old button-up style. He had long felt that the long-sleeve tennis whites of the day were uncomfortable and limited movement on the court. He began experimenting with a white, short-sleeved shirt, made from loosely-knit cotton with a design that featured a softer, flat collar and a longer tail in back.
Lacoste first wore his design at the 1926 U.S. Open Tennis Championship. Needless to say, the innovated style drew more than a few stares and remarks–some positive, and some decidedly negative. He persevered with his design and in 1927, he sewed the now famous crocodile emblem on the left upper of his shirts. This was in response to the American press, who had given him the nickname, “The Alligator.”
In the early 1930’s, Lacoste founded “Logo de Chemise Lacoste,” a company which would produce and sell his new shirt. His design solved many of the problems of the traditional tennis “whites,” in particular the tendency of the long sleeves to roll down mid-match. And the softer, flat collar could be worn either loosened or upturned to guard against sunburn on the back of the neck.
Now retired from professional tennis, Lacoste began focusing all of his attention upon the merchandising and distribution of his shirts. He joined forces with his friend and business partner, André Gillier, to market the “Lacoste Shirt” specifically to North American retailers. The embroidered crocodile logo on the shirts ensured that they were unmistakable and helped to “brand” Lacoste shirts as unique. The mass-marketing of the tennis shirt had the unexpected result of attracting other athletes. Polo players, in particular, began wearing his tennis shirt as an alternative to the thick, long sleeve, buttoned shirts that had traditionally been worn in their sport.
Today, you are just as likely to find a Lacoste Polo shirt on the golf course as on the tennis court or polo field. In fact, the familiar little crocodile has become a modern wardrobe staple for all men, not just athletes. Hip hop fashion began to include the polo shirt early on, and today Lacoste clothing can be seen in rap videos, school playgrounds and even nightclubs.
Paradoxically though, the shirt is hardly worn by tennis players these days because they began switching over to T-shirts in the late 90’s. Polo players too, have moved on from the original Lacoste shirt. Even though the shirt is seldom used for its original purpose today, it’s popularity remains as strong as ever among the general public.