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The Polo Shirt

Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

The term itself is laden with misnomer—and it's not just that hardly anyone in a polo shirt is anywhere near a polo field. What we call polo shirts first gained currency on the tennis court. Of course, they are now acceptable on the golf course and on any number of summer sporting fields as well as in most casual settings and even many workplaces. Forget that few people play polo in them. A better reason not to use the term is polo players originally wore long-sleeved oxfords with button-down collars that kept the flaps out of the players' faces as they sped along on horseback. Nevertheless, we call them that and probably will for a long time.

Credit tennis great René Lacoste with popularizing the form: a short-sleeved shirt with a small placket at the neck and two or three buttons that made play less less cumbersome than in long sleeves. Lacoste's design, which appeared in the 1920s, included some tennis-specific details: an elongated tail in the back to help keep the shirt tucked in during play and a wide collar that could be turned up against the sun. In 1933, he formed La Chemise Lacoste and placed his signature emblem on the breasts of the shirts. Most of us think of it as an alligator, but the logo is meant to portray a crocodile after the tenacious tennis player's nickname (he never let go of his prey).

What may preserve the term "polo shirt" is that one of the first popular garments made by Ralph Lauren Polo is such a shirt, and, until recently, it always had a polo player stitched on its left breast. The company now offers a customization program on its Web site that includes not only the color of the shirt and the embroidery and the choice of long or short sleeves, but the option to move the logo or replace it with a monogram. We're not worried that people will start calling them "monogram shirts."

While Lacoste's first shirts were made of rugged, absorbent cotton pique in standard tennis white, the polo form has branched out over the years. Softer cottons are a valid choice for casual wear and games in which perspiring is not such as issue. Despite the general trend toward ultraluxury fabrics, we find warming cashmere and silk polos sort of silly. While polyester has many uses, the polo shirt is not one of them as the material isn't absorbent. We even suggest wearing an undershirt to absorb perspiration and keep your polo from clinging. White, of course, is no longer de rigueur, even on most tennis courts, and polos have been offered in a range of colors for years. Gran Sasso's (pictured) bright spectrum as well as choice of patterns appeal to our sense of play even as we're still waiting to buy our first polo pony.

Visit www.lacoste.com, www.polo.com,or www.gransasso.com.

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