#22: Brand Basics: The Polo Shirt

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Dear Ralph,

Let me apologize for getting so off track. When I started writing you I had promised a history of your brand, not a half-baked history of semi-obscure aesthetic and philosophical movements emanating from France after the end of the Second World War.

So lets get down to basics. Brand basics. Ralph Lauren, global juggernaut of American luxury, is a brand that (according to Michael Gross and that tell-all bio I promise I won’t bring up again) is powered by the sale of two humble basics: polo shirts and chinos. Sure, there are Purple Label suits that sell for thousands. There is the Ricky bag; every luxury brand needs a signature bag. There are those premium cashmere cable knit sweaters and ultra-luxe RRL leather jackets and those English-made cordovan penny loafers.

But the money is in chinos and polos.

That’s right. For all the tweediness of your brand – it’s Cape Cod-ready ease and out-west ruggedness – it is the basic uniform of “business casual” that keeps things humming. Let’s leave chinos aside for now and focus on the strange odyssey of the humble polo shirt, because I think it tells us something about men’s clothing and, by extension, men.

The polo shirt, as anyone with even a vague interest in clothing knows, burst onto the scene in France in the late 1920s (don’t worry, I won’t digress into a discussion of Henri Bergson). There were several innovations in the shirt that Rene Lacoste wore onto the courts, but the one with the greatest consequences was the addition (when the shirts were marketed to the public in 1933) of the Lacoste trademark crocodile on the left breast of the shirt. Although branding had taken place on clothes before, this voracious reptile would devour everything in its path in what would soon become the swamp we refer to today as menswear.

The shirt migrated from tennis to polo players and from there to the leisure-wear of the well-heeled vacation set. The Lacoste shirt spent almost 40 years signifying athleticism, leisure, good taste, money and sophistication. For many years, the original associations held. When you introduced your 24-colour line in 1972 (it took Lacoste almost 20 years to make the shirt in any colour other than white!) the market was ready for a fresh take. The polo shirt remains, to this day, the core of Polo’s financial success. (The full history of the shirt is given a great treatment over at Ivy Style)

That is the easy part. Despite some confusion over whether it is a crocodile or an alligator, the history of clothing like this is neat and tidy. A garment is invented and moves from a specific use (tennis in this case, it is usually either the field of sport or the field of war) to a more general one. The garment gathers associations as it goes; the past piles up around it, obscuring its origins and its uses. It is easy enough to track ubiquity, but how do you explain that the men in these two photos are wearing the exact same outfit:

What has happened to us? I realize just how low putting a picture of JFK next to someone who is basically wearing a Best Buy uniform is, but it makes my point.

Your polo shirt arrived at a pivotal moment. The decline of the suit, the exploding implications of the peacock revolution, cheap off-shore manufacturing, brand building, status seeking, a general relaxation of social mores are all swirling about here. At the same time, athletic wear begins a high-tech revolution that will be just as meaningful for the clothing of our time as the polo grounds were to the leisure wear of the ‘30s. Gone are the cable-knit sweaters and camel hair coats, in are our breathable synthetics in shiny logo-adorned finishes.

And those tiny reptiles grown fat from years of carnage in the menswear swamp? They grow bigger and bigger, somehow come to simultaneously mean more and less (who cares about the pony on your polo shirt while the company that makes them is knocking themselves off for the outlet crowd?) and turn style (something that used to be an end in itself) into finding different ways of letting people know where you spend your money. It isn’t just logos, men now need internet schooling to teach them the appropriate way to display the selvedge seam on their $350 jeans.

The pony itself has come to entangle all the horrible contradictions of spending and sporting so much that style-maven Andre 3000 recently rapped:

So-lo that no more high horses, so hard to wear Polo

When I do I cut the pony off, now there’s a hole that once was a logo

How fitting

So-lo that I can give a fuck about what is trending

 But why the pony? Because it symbolizes the world of Ralph Lauren: a world of luxury and distressed leather and velvet slippers and those English-made shoes. It is a world that is paid for in outlet malls that dot the suburbs of a globalized-world, selling the fallen warriors of today the flimsy armour of business casual so they can look at your premium lines and dream of a world they will never know.

Hope you’re well,

S

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