And not just because it should really have been called the Tennis Shirt. Long before Mr T.Thomas shouted ‘Hard Cheese’ and showed off in a tennis match, to try to gain access to the floral bloomers of a certain April Smith (School for Scoundrels, 1960) tennis players would usually wear ‘tennis whites’. This meant long sleeved button-up shirts, flannel trousers and ties. This was all well and good if your name was Sebastian, and you fancied knocking a few crumpets over the net after six bottles of Bolly at Brideshead, but for the serious player, it was about as comfy as a wasp up a kilt.
Naturally, it was a fiendishly fashionable Froggy who came up with the answer, René Lacoste, the French seven-time Grand Slam tennis champion and all round smart derriere. He invented a white, short sleeved and loosely knit pique cotton, with a soft collar, buttoned placket, and a longer back, first sported by The Crocodile, as he was known, at the 1926 US Open. I haven’t checked any detail of his performance, as I prefer to imagine he played while smoking a Gauloise, with frequent set breaks to guzzle Champers and ravish ball girls, prior to a celebratory leap over the net involving a loud fart.
And so René, bless his little garlic pods, solved a few problems in one for the tennis players of the day: the short sleeves meant your long sleeve shirt didn’t suddenly start flapping, and take your eye off the ball; the soft collar could be easily loosened during a sweaty tie breaker; the collar could also be turned up, in ‘Hi, my name’s Piers and I’m in marketing’ style, keeping the sun off your neck; the pique fabric breathed much better than a formal shirt, so you didn’t knock the umpire off his chair with your whiffy pits; and the ‘tennis tail’ meant you didn’t flash your bum crack when you dived low for a back hand belter. It all worked so well, that in 1933 he teamed up with his old mate André Gillier to form Chemise Lacoste, and the rest is, as they say, Geography.
So why the blue bloody blazes is it called a ‘polo’ shirt. In short, you’ve probably never heard of him, but this bloke called Ralph Lauren started playing with the idea in 1972. He wanted to infuse his range with a little Savile Row ‘What ho Bertie, have you seen the size of Torquil’s todger,’ knowing of course that all things English are marvellous. And so he used the tennis shirt style fused with that ‘sport of kings’ feel, whacked on a polo pony and a bloke with a big stick, and the idea seemed to catch on — why? I don’t know, any more than I understand why Simon Cowell balances a black shredded wheat on his head and calls it a haircut, it was just one of those things…it’s in the T-shirt, sweatshirt, hood and polo requirement, so you might need to find one to add to your range.
And that should be straight forward enough shouldn’t it…collar, three buttons, short sleeve and drop tail, how tricky can that be? Well sadly, that’s like saying we’ve got the best football league in the world, what’s the problem with getting together a decent national squad? It should happen, they do well for their clubs, but as soon as that white jersey goes on they turn into a troupe of gibbons in a cake shop…it’s a mystery, and so are polo shirts.
Because if you don’t get it right, you run the risk of looking like a bunch of plumbers, arrived mob handed to rod a blockage. Or at least I used to say that, until a large and dangerous Glaswegian customer of mine spotted that I’d said that in a previous blog, and threatened to burst my ball cock. So for Mr Rabbie ‘the Monkey Wrench’ Peacock, you run the risk of looking like a bunch of electricians.
They need to fit. None of this peaked sleeved, baggy bodied nonsense. We want them tight on the guns, sleek on the body, ready for anything. They need a slightly raised placket, to keep the collar from curling like a spam sandwich at a shit wedding. They need detail to make them look retail, a little raised stitch line on the sleeve rib maybe, a little taping on the side vent, a locker patch perhaps, something, but subtle, like the serpent, who as God said in Genesis 3:1-24 was ‘more subtle thanany other wild creature’…don’t panic, I grew up in central Nottingham, I don’t believe in anything…and, forget all the contrast colour placket and stripy under collar shizzle, we’ll leave that to the stuff in the catalogues on the doorsteps of middle England, for those who leave shopping to the bootless and unwashed.
Off the shelf, it’s so hard to find this suggestion of high street detail, without any over the top contrast colour twaddle, while avoiding looking work wear, that I could only recommend one in a pique fabric, and one in a brushed jersey, of all the many thousands on offer….well there’s maybe a third one, but it’s pricey. Or, you can make your own from scratch, but with minimums, and a kick in the financial danglers.
But get it right, choose one of the nice off the shelfers, and gild that lily with a beautiful high definition left breast badge, a heritage woven back neck label, a heavy hem tab perhaps, and you’ll be knocking back pink gins at the Guard’s Polo Club in two swishes of pony’s tail (prepare to be woken up in Belgravia, by an annoying laugh and a big girl called Lydia).
Oh yes, the name ‘polo’ is derived from the Indian ‘pulu’ for the wood from which the ball was made, so unless you want to avoid losing a tooth, avoid the Chicken Pulu.