50 years later, the polo shirt is still a closet favorite

From its equestrian roots and cult status on the tennis court to becoming synonymous with country club cool, the polo is the athleisure equivalent of an LBD. David Beckham, Roger Federer, Nacho Figueras and Pharrell Williams are known to be huge fans of the iconic garment. Just like Saif Ali Khan and Padmanabh Singh, Maharaja of Jaipur. It is a piece steeped in socio-political symbolism, reflecting wealth, stature and style. With luxury label Ralph Lauren toasting the classic’s 50th anniversary by releasing Ralph Lauren’s Polo Shirt (Rizzoli International), this closet favorite makes for a fascinating anthropological study.

Now practiced all over the world, polo has its origins in India. Around the middle of the 19th century, a group of British officers stationed in colonial India noticed people in Manipur riding ponies and chasing a ball with sticks to score a goal. Fascinated, they began to learn about the game, called pulu. And slowly pulu became polo, the officers reinterpreting it in the United Kingdom and making it a symbol of the aristocracy.

In 1896, John E. Brooks of New York clothing brand Brooks Brothers created the “original button-up polo shirt”, inspired after seeing the equipment of polo players during a trip to England. “Interestingly enough, in the 1930s, the Jodhpur polo team wore very intricate knitwear for polo matches, keeping extreme weather conditions in mind. It may have been an ancestor of today’s polo T-shirt (it’s still debated whether it’s a shirt or a T-shirt), but it was practical and still paired beautifully with breeches,” explains designer Raghavendra Rathore.

Actor Saif Ali Khan is often seen in a polo shirt, both live and in real life.

French businessman and tennis player Jean René Lacoste (nicknamed “The Crocodile”) also had a big role to play in the evolution of polo. Departing from the button-down shirt and tie look of the tennis stars of the day, Lacoste reinvented the classic in a more “practical” format – a short-sleeved three-button shirt, with a crocodile emblem on the left Sein.

The luxurious touch

It was Ralph Lauren, however, who gave it a chic and luxurious touch when they launched their unique iteration of the tennis shirt in 1972.

Worn by pop culture icons and royalty, her creation served as a personal canvas for self-expression. His table book, Ralph Lauren’s Polo Shirt, which looks back on the history of the timeless wardrobe classic, begins with: “The polo shirt is to Ralph Lauren what Mickey Mouse is to Disney or the Statue of Liberty is to New York. This is the company’s signature… a symbol that evokes not only a luxurious art of living, but a chic and laid-back casualness…”.

Polo Ralph Lauren: by Ralph Lauren, Ken Burns and David Lauren;  Rizoli International.

Polo Ralph Lauren: by Ralph Lauren, Ken Burns and David Lauren; Rizoli International.
(Courtesy of Ralph Lauren)

Even in the movies, at home and abroad, the polo shirt gave gravity to the film’s protagonists, whether it was Margot Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums (tried on by Gwyneth Paltrow) which brings to life the preppy Izod tennis dress or the comfortable and relaxed polo shirts seen on Timothée Chalamet in call me by your name.

According to stylist Akshay Tyagi, the garment’s popularity lies in its cool country club vibe. “A hint of Ivy League and comfortable American sportswear. Saif Ali Khan has also worn it in films and ad campaigns, and it gets its cultural connection so well,” says Tyagi.

Speaking of his presence in Indian cinema, designer Kunal Anil Tanna points to Salman Khan’s polo look in Bodyguard. “Salman made Indian cinema an icon,” he said.

Tyagi says the Y2K version of the polo might make its presence felt in future seasons. “I see girls shortening their polo shirts and guys opting for a decidedly sporty version,” says Tyagi, who has often used it to style celebrities. “It’s a cross between a T-shirt and a shirt. Casual but formal,” he jokes.

Rathore adds that “the modern t-shirt worn at night in dark colors with tapered trousers and driving shoes or loafers is a look, which has now become an anthem for successful young golfers, like partygoers. The best accessory is a good physique to bring the T-shirt to life. An avatar of the T-shirt when it appeared on the big screen in the movie chariots of fire left an incredible impact on us as a generation.

In case you can’t decide how to wear a polo shirt, Kunal has a suggestion: pair it with dark jeans and wear it under a jacket. “Or you can wear it under a gilet or a bomber jacket. It’s hard to go wrong with a polo shirt.

Manish Mishra is a Delhi-based journalist and content creator.

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