Style / April 2018

The History of the Polo Shirt

We explore the century-plus evolution of the polo shirt and the main players involved in its development and popularisation.

Manolo Sweden’s Executive Editor Andreas Weinas pairs a navy polo shirt with a checked single-breasted blazer and grey pleated trousers at Pitti Uomo, 2017. Photograph by Jamie Ferguson.

The history of the polo shirt centres on three individuals: an American heritage haberdasher, a dashing French sportsman and a visionary menswear tycoon. The first of the trio was a gentleman named John E. Brooks, the grandson of Henry Sands Brooks, who founded the Brooks Brothers company in 1818 with a stated goal “to make and deal only in merchandise of the finest quality, to sell it at a fair profit and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise” (closely echoing a Japanese philosophy known as ‘sampo yoshi’ — or ‘all good in three directions’ — where the craftsman, merchant and buyer all benefit).

Like many a New World menswear creator to come, John E. Brooks was greatly inspired by the sartorial styling of the British gentry. On a trip to England in the final years of the 19th century, Brooks noticed that polo players had taken to having buttons sewn on the collars of their shirts to avoid the tips flapping in their faces during game play. Returning home to the US, Brooks imitated the innovation and started manufacturing shirts with button-down collars (which were also among the first attached-collar shirts sold in the States).

A Brooks Brothers staple to this day, the Oxford Cotton Button-Down (also widely known by the acronym OCBD) continues to bear the legend ‘The Original Polo Shirt’ on its label. But despite its more than 120 years of history, the OCBD is not what we generally think of when the words ‘polo shirt’ are uttered. What springs to mind is something more akin to the open-weave piqué cotton, soft-collared, three-button placket-front shirt innovated by French tennis player René Lacoste in the late 1920s.

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Christian Barker

Christian Barker is The Rake's Asia editor-at-large, a frequent contributor to this site, and an enthusiastic consumer of fine whiskies, sashimi and classic disco music - ideally in unison.