by James Kraus
Many manufacturers offer polo shirts these days, but they are all knock-offs; all but one, that is. The one true authentic original short-sleeve mesh polo shirt is the Lacoste Classic Piqué L1212 Polo. It’s been around for 77 years.
It was invented by René Lacoste, a French tennis champion who twice triumphed at Wimbledon, won the U.S. Open on two occasions and thrice took victory laurels at the French Open. He was ranked Number One Player in 1926 and 1927.
René, a tenacious and beloved competitor, was dubbed Le Crocodile by the press and his fans. The other three top French players (his Davis Cup teammates) were known for some time as the Bounding Basque, the Magician and Toto. Lacoste was last to be granted a popular sobriquet. In tribute, a friend had the image of a crocodile embroidered on a sport coat and presented it to René, who took to wearing the jacket to his matches.
Monsieur Lacoste appeared on court at the 1926 U.S. Open wearing what seemed at the time a curiously strange new shirt. Instead of the traditional on-court attire of a long-sleeve oxford button-down (the earlier form of polo shirt originated by Brooks Brothers), he was sporting a short-sleeve white shirt of lightweight woven cotton piqué that he had designed with an eye to enhancing his mobility and warm-weather comfort. The new shirt may have indeed given him a boost, as he handily won the championship.
There was sufficient interest created by the new garment that René and a friend set up a business to manufacture it in Troyes, France in 1933. To promote the association with René and his victories on the court, his personal signature was added in the form of the now-famous crocodile. A new staple of men’s clothing was born.
The performance and comfort of the shirt made it an immediate favourite of sportsmen, the first adopters being polo players and golfers. Not far behind were the top competitors in motorsport.
Porsche drivers at the Targa weren’t alone. Another big fan was Count Wolfgang von Trips, who frequently wore red as well as the original white, quite appropriate to his position as works Ferrari driver.
In the classic days of Grand Prix and Sportscar racing, the Lacoste shirt became as nearly ubiquitous as the Dunlop driving suit.