From its equestrian roots and its cult status on the tennis court to becoming a synonym for country club cool, the polo shirt is an athleisure equivalent of an LBD. David Beckham, Roger Federer, Nacho Figueras and Pharrell Williams are known to be big fans of the iconic garment. So are Saif Ali Khan and Padmanabh Singh, Maharaja of Jaipur. It’s a piece steeped in socio-political symbolism, reflecting wealth, stature and style. With luxury label Ralph Lauren toasting the classic’s 50th anniversary by publishing Ralph Lauren’s Polo Shirt (Rizzoli International), this closet favourite makes for a fascinating anthropological study.
Now played across the globe, the polo sport had its origins in India. Towards the middle of the 19th century, a group of British officers posted in colonial India noticed some residents of Manipur riding ponies and chasing a ball with sticks to score a goal. Fascinated, they started learning more about the game, called pulu. And slowly pulu became polo, with the officers reinterpreting it in the UK and making it a symbol of aristocracy.
By 1896, John E. Brooks of New York’s apparel brand Brooks Brothers created the “original button-down polo shirt”, inspired after seeing the gear of polo players during a a trip to England. “Interestingly enough, in the 1930s, the Jodhpur polo team was wearing highly complex knits for polo matches, keeping in mind the extreme weather. It may have been an early ancestor of the present polo T-shirt (it’s still a debate whether it’s a shirt or a T-shirt), but it was practical and always beautifully paired with breeches,” says designer Raghavendra Rathore.
Businessman and French tennis player Jean René Lacoste (nicknamed “Le Crocodile”) also had a big role to play in the evolution of the polo shirt. Taking a departure from the button-down shirt-and-tie look seen on tennis stars of the era, Lacoste reimagined the classic in more “practical” format—a short-sleeved, three-button shirt, with a crocodile emblem on the left breast.
The luxe touch
It was Ralph Lauren, however, who lent it a chic and luxe touch by launching his unique iteration of the tennis shirt in 1972.
Worn by pop culture icons and royalty, its creation served as a personal canvas for self-expression. Its coffee table book, Ralph Lauren’s Polo Shirt, which looks back at the history of the enduring wardrobe classic, starts with: “The polo shirt is to Ralph Lauren what Mickey Mouse is to Disney or the Statue of Liberty is to New York. It’s the signature of the company... a symbol that conjures up not only a luxurious way of living, but a chic casualness and ease...”.
Even in cinema, home and abroad, the polo shirt has lent gravitas to film protagonists—be it Margot Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums (essayed by Gwyneth Paltrow) who brings to life the preppy Izod tennis dress or the comfy, relaxed-fit polos seen on Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name.
According to stylist Akshay Tyagi, the popularity of the garment lies in its country club-cool vibe. “A hint of Ivy League and American comfort sportswear. Saif Ali Khan has worn it in films and ad campaigns too, and he gets its cultural connect so well,” says Tyagi.
Speaking of its presence in Indian cinema, designer Kunal Anil Tanna points towards Salman Khan’s polo shirt look in Bodyguard. “Salman has made the polo shirt for Indian cinema iconic,” he believes.
Tyagi says the Y2K version of the polo could make its presence felt in the coming seasons. “I see girls cropping their polos and guys opting for a decidedly jock style version of it,” explains Tyagi, who’s often used it while styling celebrities. “It’s a cross between a T-shirt and a shirt. Casual yet formal,” he quips.
Rathore adds the “modern T-shirt worn in the evening in dark colours with tapered pants and driving shoes or loafers is a look, which has now become an anthem for successful young golfers, party goers alike. The best accessory is a good physique for the T-shirt to come alive. Some 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, Kunal has a suggestion: pair it with dark denims and layer it under a jacket. “Or you could wear it under a waistcoat or a bomber jacket. It’s difficult to go wrong with a polo.”
Manish Mishra is a Delhi-based journalist and a content creator.