This is a story about two remarkable gentleman that marked the world of tennis as much as the world of fashion. Jean René Lacoste and Fred Perry were both famous for their huge achievements in two very different arenas. Not only they were once ranked the world’s top tennis players, but both designed a new tennis shirt that became the cornerstone of a world-famous fashion empires. The famous polo shirt.
Lacoste was born in a wealthy family in Paris in 1904. Although he did not play tennis till he was 15, his drive, discipline and intelligence turned him into a tennis legend. For his tenacity on the tennis court he was nicknamed “The Crocodile”.
A nickname that will become one of the most recognizable logos in the world. Some fashion historians state that the “The Crocodile” sign was the first logo that appeared on a fashion product.
In 1926 and 1927 Lacoste was ranked the world’s top tennis player. In his career he won seven Grand Slam titles. Three times the French Open at the Roland Garros in 1925, 1927 and 1929. He was a two time winner at the Wimbledon, 1925 and 1928 and two-time winner at the US Open in 1926 and 1927. Also he won two Davis Cup’s in 1927 and 1928.
At the same time over the other side of the La Manche (as the English would say “The Channel”) in Portwood England, Frederick John Perry was born in 1909. His rise to tennis stardom started in 1929, the year that Lacoste won his last Grand Slam title and soon after Lacoste retired from the world of tennis at the age of 25 because of his respiratory disease.
Fred Perry won eight Grand Slams, three consecutive Wimbledon Championships from 1934 to 1936 and was the world’s top player four years in a row. Perry is the last English player that won the Men’s singles Wimbledon title (Andy Murray who won it in 2012 is Scottish). Perry also won the Australian Open in 1934, French Open in 1935 and US Open in 1933, 1935 and 1936 making him the first tennis player in history that won all four Grand Slam titles.
In the late 20’s Lacoste and Perry were two of the world’s best players but they never played against each other. Peek in their careers was separated by only a few years. It would be very interesting to see them play together. Can you image that you never saw Sampras play against Agassi? Although they were never rivals at the tennis court their fashion brands became rivals and synonyms of great quality and style.
Birth of the polo shirt
Lacoste’s mechanical engineering background led him to several inventions in the world of sports. He was inventor of first metal tennis racket, first tennis ball machine and he even developed new polyurethane golf driver which helped the sport transition to composite material based clubs.
But it was the clothing line that bore his name that proved to be Lacoste’s greatest post game success. He was the first player who opted to compete in short-sleeved knit shirts and not dress shirts.
Rene Lacoste did not like traditional tennis attire so he came up with the polo shirt. He wore first polo shirt in 1926 at the US Open.
The design of polo shirts overcame lots of the problems associated with the traditional tennis attire. The short sleeves solved the problem of long flapping sleeves, the neck could be easily unbuttoned and loosened and the collar could be worn turned up to protect the neck from the sun. Also the pique knit fabric had breathing capabilities.
Sensing the market for this kind of look, Lacoste formed a small company soon after finishing his tennis career to manufacture sports apparel. La Societe Chemise Lacoste introduced a short sleeve cotton piqué polo shirt.
The company really began to expand in 1951 when it branched out from the tennis white shirts and introduced a line of color shirts. At the same time company with its signature crocodile emblem on the left breast, entered the US market. The Lacoste brand reached its height of popularity in the US during the late 70’s and early 80’s where it became synonymous with high status.
Just like Lacoste, Fred Perry was also responsible for one innovation in the world of tennis. It was the sweatband. Item that he invented in collaboration with Austrian footballer Tibby Wegner. In the late 40’s they started to produce white knitted cotton piqué short sleeve shirts just like Rene Lacoste’s.
Launched in Wimbledon in 1952, Fred Perry tennis shirt was an instant success. This white tennis shirt became more popular in the subculture groups throughout 60’s and 70’s, ranging from mods, skinheads to the Northern soul scene. Its logo, a laurel wreath, was based on the original symbol of Wimbledon.
Flamboyant and quiet life
Fred Perry was one of the true playboys of his era. Although married four times he was known for his relationships with Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and Loretta Young. His fondness to woman was pictured in an anecdote where Perry and his team-mate scrambled down the outside of a hotel on a sheets they tied together, in order to drop in on two female players.
The high life he enjoyed in later years seemed a long way from his working class origins. It was because of his origins that he was never truly accepted in Wimbledon’s All England Club. But the fact that he was outsider helped him rather than crushed his spirit. Disillusioned by the establishment Perry headed to the classless society of the United States where he took US citizenship.
Despite his unprecedented contribution to British tennis, Perry was not given full recognition by the tennis establishment until his late years. In 1984 , eleven years before he died in 1995, a statue of Perry was unveiled at Wimbledon.
Rene Lacoste was more of a quiet person and lived a quiet life. Later in life, his passion was golf and his daughter Catherine was US Open golf champion in the 60’s. Over the last several years of his life Lacoste battled health issues. He suffered from prostate cancer, and in 1996, just one year after Fred Perry died, Rene Lacoste died in sleep from heart failure.
Two great sportsman’s who marked tennis grounds left this world almost simultaneously leaving us with a legacy that we can wear every day.
Modern Gentleman’s Review of Polo Shirts
I am the proud owner of more than 15 polo shirts. Whenever I am not wearing the shirt I am wearing a polo shirt. I love to wear them on almost all casual occasions.
I wear them under gray vest or crew neck sweater in colder days and in summer they are a great pair for my dark jeans.
I own several brands and I would like to give my insight on them. Some are better and some are worse. This is only my honest opinion and if you have different opinions or would like to recommend some brands, please comment on this article.
Fred Perry – I own around 10 Fred Perry polo shirts and in my opinion they are the best. Some of them are more than 5 years old and are still almost as good as new. The best thing about Fred Perry polo shirts is that they do not lose shape. They do not stretch or shrink with time.
The material is not so soft and I like it that way. This gives them durability unlike other polo shirts that I have, but they are still very comfortable. The only complaint is that after a longer period of time collar looses its color especially in the line of fold, but that is my only complaint.
Joop – I own one long sleeve Joop polo shirt and it has proven to be of a good quality. Color did not fade, it did not stretch, although it is only a few years old. I am very satisfied with it, although a bit too soft for my taste. It has a nice gray color which is a great contrast to the purple color of the shirt. This shirt is a slim fit style and it wraps your body nicely.
Fernand Bachmann – I stumbled upon this brand when I was searching for driving gloves. Fernand Bachmann is a French brand specialized in clothes for vintage car enthusiasts. Their polo shirt is as good as Fred Perry polo shirts but it is a bit softer. I own it only for a year so I cannot test its durability, but I highly recommend it. I especially like the white-collar. If you are the vintage car aficionado and would like to have some clothes to go along with your old car, check out Fernand Bachman.
Abercrombie and Fitch – I bought two of their polo shirts just to give them a try. I am not a big fan of their torn, damaged look but I wanted to see if they will be good to me. In my opinion they are too stiff. Collar in particular. The slim fit shape fits me well but they are not so comfortable as Fred Perry ones. Also their styling is more for younger guys. Although they are not too bad like some others my biggest complaint is the stiffness of the material.
Rene Lezard – Another French brand. I own one of their polo shirts and I am not too happy with it. I own if for some three years and it has not stood the test of time as well as above mentioned. Material is also on the softer side, so it stretched a bit but I like the contrasting pale blue collar.
Lacoste – I own only three of Lacoste polo shirts and I must say I am not too happy with them. In my opinion they are too soft which resulted in stretching. Although color did not fade and they are comfortable to wear they did not last long. They lost their shape and I was kind of disappointed.
Tommy Hilfiger – I think I got their polo shirts as a gift and they are a huge disappointment. I own one brown long-sleeved and one purple short-sleeved. Both stretched after a year or two, stitches started to pull out, they lost their shape and I am not happy with them at all. I must say that Tommy Hilfiger polo shirts are big disappointment and I will stay away from their products in the future.
If you have some other opinions or recommendations please feel free to share them.