Why office wear is all about the polo shirt
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There was a point around three months into lockdown when I reached for the unironed polo shirt in my drawer, and realised that I hadn’t worn a suit or business shirt for weeks. And also that I had too many polo shirts.
This is not going to be one of those articles about working from home during lockdown and discovering that not commuting is actually much nicer than commuting. Nor did I have a great epiphany that working at home is better than working in an office because you can save lots of money if you’re not buying stupid train tickets or overpriced coffee or lunches at Pret.
I kept coming to the office throughout lockdown, not because I liked commuting but because I thought it was important to be in the newsroom when the world was falling apart. That’s what I told people, anyway: the real reason was that there wasn’t a single quiet room or workable surface to stick a laptop on in my house, with three noisy kids and my wife hogging all the spare ones.
So off to work I went. And have continued to go. Since spring, there have rarely been more than a handful of us in the whole building. You can walk through empty floors and never see a soul, just like in The Shining without a homicidal Jack Nicholson. And because no one else has been around, I have thought: what’s the point in wearing business get-up? Which is only countered by the thought that if someone important happens to come in, then I can’t look like I’ve just got out of bed or haven’t dressed for work.
Hence the polo shirts, which I started wearing at work because a polo shirt is more comfortable than a suit and tie. Also it is not a T-shirt. And I actually like them, which is not something I readily admit because, depending on your age or where you are in the world, a polo shirt can be a kind of anti-fashion statement, like wearing cargo shorts or the non-ironic – or even ironic – pairing of brown socks with sandals.
The original polo shirt – so called because they were worn on the polo fields of India – had long sleeves and button-down collars to stop them flapping up in the wind. John E Brooks, the grandson of Brooks Brothers founder Henry Brooks, was so struck by them when watching an English polo match that he put button-down collars on Brooks Brothers shirts – among the first sold in America that had the collars attached. More than a century later, the company still labels its long-sleeved, button-down shirts “original polo”.
In America, polos have a preppy association, for which we can blame Ralph Lauren because he essentially invented preppiness in the late ’60s with a range that became the default wardrobe for people named Tad who use “summer” as a verb (as in: “Where do you summer?”) and wear chinos and sweaters tied in a knot around their shoulders. Lauren even called his range Polo and designed a logo of a polo player on a horse, wielding a mallet above his head.
Lauren was inspired by polo players and a vision of Waspish American life that, in his youth, would have been out of reach for a Jewish boy from the Bronx who was born Ralph Lifshitz. But he may have also been inspired by René Lacoste’s classic polo shirt, which wasn’t even a polo shirt at all because Lacoste was a champion tennis player. Lacoste wanted a shirt that could be worn on the court so he shortened the sleeves of the polo and reduced the number of buttons. The Frenchman’s nickname was “the Crocodile”, which is why each Lacoste shirt carries the small crocodile insignia on the heart and is believed to be the first item of clothing ever to have a logo on it.
“He created this shirt, which was then copied by Fred Perry who added the Wimbledon wreath to his logo,” says Peter Howarth, a fashion consultant and former Esquire editor who has worked with Armani and Versace. After Lacoste, polo shirts would be adopted by suave Italian men riding around Rome on Lambrettas; English Mods in the 1960s, who wore Fred Perry; and then skinheads, who liked their polos almost as much as Dr Martens boots. Such associations aren’t always helpful: Fred Perry recently stopped selling a black version of its shirt after it became the de facto uniform of the Proud Boys, a nutty American far-right group.
Howarth says the shirts have evolved over time: once only available in cotton piqué, designers now make them in an array of fabrics, from silk blend to cashmere. And every designer has one in its menswear range, from Tom Ford and Burberry to Kiton, which sells one for only £900. High fashion or low fashion, Howarth says the polo shirt “is very much a thing to be played with because it’s something any man can wear”.
If it means not having to wear a suit and tie, who wouldn’t want to wear one? I can’t imagine the handful of style icons in the empty FT newsroom wearing a £900 one any time soon. But you get my point.
Casting director, Shawn Dezan at Home Agency. Model’s agency, Premier Management. Grooming, Keiichiro Hirano at The London Style Agency, using Unite Haircare. Photographer’s assistant, Callum Inskipp. Digital operator, Cameron Williamson. Stylist’s assistant, Bryony Hatrick