Polo shirts have nothing to do with polo & other interesting facts

Roger Federer

Roger Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon Championships.
Image source: By Justin Smith [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The clue is usually in the name, right? Well not this time. If you think polo shirts originated from the game of polo, you’re mistaken. In fact, the polo shirt was invented by a famous tennis player. And this sporty garment even played a role in modernising our nation’s favourite racket sport. In celebration of the world famous Wimbledon tennis tournament, we’ve rounded up a few unusual facts about sportswear. You might be surprised to learn just how much of your wardrobe began life on a sports field…

The polo shirt was invented for tennis

tennis players

Tennis players in Lacoste’s time bear little resemblance to players today.
Image source: By Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-10190,_Wimbledon,_Tennisturnier, via Wikimedia Commons

The polo shirt is widely attributed to French tennis legend Jean René Lacoste (1904-1996). Prior to its invention, Victorian tennis players wore starched, long-sleeved shirts and ties, with flannel trousers on the court. Lacoste designed a much more comfortable top made from breathable Pique cotton. He added a soft, unstarched collar and opted for short sleeves. The half placket design pulled over the head and allowed tennis players much greater freedom of movement.

Lacoste wore his new shirt to the 1926 US Open Tennis Championship, and won. And so the polo shirt was born! It was so successful that Lacoste went on to set up his own clothing label that’s still going strong today.

The polo shirt remains a popular item in men’s summer wardrobes and is regularly seen both on and off the sports field. Smarter than a t-shirt, it is the ideal accompaniment to shorts, chinos or jeans.

Footballers wore trousers with braces

football players

Modern football kits are designed for comfort and freedom of movement.
Image source: Shutterstock

Unlike the colourful shorts of today, football players traditionally wore long knickerbockers or full-length trousers, often with a belt or braces. An early star of the game, Lord Kinnaird, was well-known for turning out in a resplendent pair of long white strides!

As the game evolved, players began to wear team colours; knickerbockers were replaced with trousers cut at the knee; and elasticated waists replaced braces. The first standard football strips began to emerge in the 1870s.

Sophisticated protective clothing didn’t exist for sportsmen of any discipline. But in 1874, footballer Sam Weller Widdowson (Nottingham Forest’s then-captain) invented shin pads, when he cut down a pair of cricket pads and strapped them over the top of his stockings.

Initially the concept was ridiculed and it took a long time for shin pads to become a staple football item – in fact FIFA did not make them compulsory until 1990!

Victorians were scandalised by the bare male chest

Victorian swimming costumes

Three men prepare to enter the water in knitted costumes.
Image source: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, via Wikimedia Commons

The freedom to swim ‘au naturel’ was frowned upon by prudish Victorians who required male bathers to cover their chests up to the armpits. You’ll be familiar with the old-fashioned bathing suits of yesteryear (see the picture above). But did you know that they were knitted from wool? As you may well imagine, the suits became very heavy and saggy once wet, making it difficult to exit the water with dignity!

By the 1930s, public opinion regarding the decency of the male chest had begun to change. And shirtless bathing became de rigeur.

Rugby players wore white shirts, white trousers and ties

Rugby players

Today’s rugby kit is a far cry from the starched formal wear of the past.
Image source: Shutterstock

As rugby was originally a posh schoolboy’s sport, players typically wore school uniform during matches. In the 1800s this meant a pair of white trousers, white shirt, braces, and tie – top hat and black jacket were thankfully removed before the game. Imagine playing such a physical sport in starched formal wear! Flipping difficult to tell teams and players apart as well.

Not surprisingly, darker coloured trousers soon became popular for this muddy sport. Lightweight wool jersey fabric, invented in the 1880s, was quickly adapted to sportswear and collarless ‘jerseys’ with numbers began to appear soon after.

But it wasn’t until the 1900s that a long-sleeved shirt with horizontal stripes (in team colours), a soft collar, and three or four rubber buttons at the neck, became known as the ‘rugby shirt’. Today, this easy-wear staple is just as likely to be worn off the pitch as on.

Button-down collars were specifically designed for sport

polo players

Polo players wore buttoned down collars against the wind.
Image source: Shutterstock

The button-down shirt also started life as a sporting garment. As the story goes, John Brooks (president of Brooks Brothers in the US) visited England at the end of the 19th century. While watching a game of polo he noticed that the players’ collars were buttoned down to stop them flapping in the wind. He took the idea back home and the Brooks Brothers’ trademark button-down collar shirt was born.

The button-down collar shirt was originally intended to be worn for sporting pursuits, but was quickly adopted by the general populous as a casual alternative to the formal shirt and tie. It changed mens’ fashion history forever, and Oxford shirts remain one of the most popular smart-casual options for men of all ages.

Woollen sweaters were undergarments to soak up sweat

Wool-mix crew neck jumper (green) from Samuel Windsor

The sweater was originally designed to be worn under clothing.
Image source: Wool-mix crew neck jumper (dark green) from Samuel Windsor

The sweater was originally a close-fitting, knitted undergarment worn against the skin to absorb sweat during outdoor or physical activity.

By the end of the 19th century, new fabric technology meant fewer layers of clothing were worn. As knitted underwear became outerwear, the modern jumper (made to be seen rather than smelt) was born.

In the 1920s, Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor), took the sweater to a new level, when stepped out on the golf course in a range of striking Fair Isle patterned knits paired with colourful argyle socks. His extrovert sense of style, colour, and pattern greatly influenced golfing fashion, and is still a feature of the game today.

A blazer said you belonged…

Masters jacket

The bright green US Masters blazer distinguishes members from the crowd.
Image source: By pocketwiley [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

While clothing such as polo shirts, button-down collar shirts and rugby shirts originated directly from players of sport, a second tier of clothing emerged that linked wearers to particular sports clubs. Aside from the club tie, the most notable of these is the blazer. New, emerging sports clubs quickly began to adopt jackets in club colours – often with stripes called ‘blazes’. Striped blazers are still worn by many rowing clubs today, and golf’s bright green Masters jacket is instantly recognisable.Today blazers are a staple of modern dress. Less formal than a suit, they are popular at all types of social events from sporting through to leisure and business.

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Posted in Men's shirts, Sports.