Wednesday, May 14, 2008

In praise of the polo tennis shirt.

A while back, I touched obliquely on the ideal tennis shirt and how it may only be obtained on eBay.

Still, some background is in order.

These days, alas, most people foolishly refer to this style of shirt as a "polo shirt." Which it is emphatically not. Not that long ago, most folks called this shirt "an Izod" or an "alligator shirt" because for all intents and purposes there was only one, the very highly coveted Izod Lacoste shirt.

The alligator part was wrong, too. It was a crocodile, the mascot of the shirt's inventor, French tennis star René "Le Crocodile" Lacoste, who used to slap images of the reptile in question -- as can be seen heah -- on pretty much any raiments he wished to wear.

Today we call this style of shirt a "polo" not because polo players wear them (they don't, the true polo shirt has a collar the same fabric as the body and hemmed sleeves) but because a certain Mr. Ralph Lauren cornered the market on this tennis shirting when there was fractious upheaval between the Izod and Lacoste contingent in the late 1980s-early 1990s. This is why the "alligator" shirt disappeared for a long time and only now is available as a Chemise Lacoste, which ain't the same thing.

The original Ralph Lauren version, to distinguish itself somewhat from the (then) Izod Lacoste version was made of a pima cotton interlock knit, while the I-L version was made from a cotton piqué knit. The former wore down to a softer and fuzzier finish, while the latter became cooler and crisper. I happen to prefer the latter, myself. Apparently, so did Mr. Lauren, because the Polo line barely carries the interlock-type, and mostly is seen in a piqué variant. Either due to the staple of cotton used, or the specific sort of piqué knit, it doesn't wear down as crisp-n-cool as the old I-L, but there ya go.
The question, then, is where are we to find the "good" shirts today if we don't want to go eBaying? For some people, eBaying is a problem. The I-L shirts tend to shrink over time and even when new, the XL (or "grand patron") is not much different from a biggish Medium today, so imagine what it's like after 15 years of laundering.
If we want an piqué knit tennis shirt, with
1- Not overlong sleeves (an unfortunate tic of the mid1990s) with ribbed edging
2- Proper "tennis tails" (i.e. the back tail is longer than the front of the shirt)
3- A two button placket -- three buttons are more golf/polo territory
4- That will launder down to a cool and crisp finish our options are somewhat limited. Brooks Brothers' "Golden Fleece" version carried the torch for a couple of years after the Izod v. Lacoste divorce, but BB has been bought and sold more often than can be recounted, and these shirts have been among the casualties. Polo is not among the desirables, for the reasons enumerated above (although RL's Purple Label is quite good if you can stomach the wallet-eviscerating prices).
Preppy standbys like LL Bean are only adequate if your neck is longer and thinner than average, because LLB fetishizes models that must have a few giraffe chromosomes. Joseph A. Bank is OK, but the "oversized" cut and lack of tennis tails is troublesome; although the prices -- especially on sale -- can be bargains.
The closest thing to the classic of yesteryear, today, is Lands' End's "Men's Banded Original Mesh Polo Shirt" which has the advantage of not carrying a logo and being available with a monogram (for $5) and at $20-$25, the price is right and the cut is close-enough, even if the sleeves are a teeny bit long. (If you can find their "Summer" polo shirt -- and good luck with that -- you'll have the ideal shirt.)
I have spoken,


Blogger MsCellania said...

I'm still happy with RL polos for the boys as they run skinny and long, and we have an outlet store here (well, up in the mountains, but close enough).
But this is good info. I need them for ME.

12:18 PM  

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