It’s easy to overlook the classic polo shirt. It’s what country club members wear with braided belts; it’s the first thing you grab for a round of golf with your father-in-law. It’s casual Fridays at the office or under a blazer in the summer for a first date someplace, you know, not nice, but nice. On March 8, Lacoste, the polo’s inventor, celebrated its iconic top’s 90th anniversary with five distinct editions: the original L.12.12, a modern update called “Paris,” an athleisure option called “Movement,” and two additional categories for golf and tennis. But while the announcement hardly turned heads, on the piece’s release almost a century ago, the polo shirt was a scandal. A tactical advantage. And it induced a perpetual revolution.
Envisioned by French tennis great Rene Lacoste, the polo, with its fold-down collar, breathable pique knit fabric, and (gasp!) short sleeves, looked good. But more importantly, when compared to the long-sleeve cotton shirts of the day, it allowed one to really smack the shit out of the ball. Like later advances of polyester strings and graphite racquets, it was quickly adopted as the de facto uniform of the sport, passing from the elite to the club player. But it kept moving, ranging beyond the chalk lines and short grass, and into the pantheon of essential menswear.
Sung Choi, creative director for Italian sportswear outfitter Sergio Tacchini, is one of the best in the world to talk about the polo—particularly because in his nearly six-decade-old company, named after and founded by another tennis great, was the first to add color-blocking to what was initially a monochrome palette. The reason it jumped from athletic attire to the everyman, Choi says, is because of its premium reputation: Pro athletes wore it and depended on it, so therefore it must be great. And it’s in some part deserved: In an era of fast fashion fresh from a factory, Lacoste still makes its polos in France, while Sergio Tacchini, which became a hip-hop staple worn by Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, Wu-Tang Clan, and others, was imported direct from Italy and a carried a price to match.
But the reason for the polo’s continued relevance in the menswear space hearkens back to the original intent: comfort in a put-together look. “You can dress it up or down, and it doesn’t seem like it’s out of place in any situation, whether you’re on the court, at a dinner, or at a gallery opening,” Choi says. There’s also a wealth of options within its silhouette from which the modern man can select. While Lacoste’s L.12.12 is made true to the original, its Paris line mods the design, hiding its traditional button placket for a cleaner minimalist look. Sergio Tacchini incorporates recycled polyester fabrics in some, while others (decidedly sport-adjacent) are cut from a plush velour. Todd Snyder sources super-lux silk blends, and English clothier Percival adds bottom banding for throwback appeal. “There’s a lot of room to play without losing the essence of the polo shirt,” Choi adds.
What Lacoste began with his scandalous polo has only advanced over subsequent decades. In January, at the Australian Open, one of the four tennis Majors tournaments, American Francis Tiafoe made international news with this amazing technicolor Nike kit, a matching tie-dyed tank top and shorts that swirled more than a Nadal forehand. But many more donned the polo, including eventual winner Novak Djokovic, who has his own signature Lacoste tech option. When I take to the courts, I still appreciate the feel of the original L.12.12. And when it comes to dressing up for an evening out in the warmer months, I’d prefer to wear one. Maybe it’s because of the legacy it carries—like Red Wing boots or a Schott leather jacket—the brand is the garment. Maybe it’s the weight of the sportsmen who chose it as they made history—Pete Sampras blasting aces and John McEnroe losing his shit at a chair umpire. But more likely, it’s as Choi says: The polo survives as a sartorial chameleon, appropriate anywhere and adaptable to anything.