by Kiel James Patrick
Jean René Lacoste was famous not only for his considerate achievements on the court, but off. The Frenchman found traditional tennis attire too bulky, stiff, and completely uncomfortable for the court. He embarked on a mission to create the ideal shirt for the game in white loosely knit piqué cotton. Ironically, the true brilliance was the small, green smiling alligator stitched on the left breast. What began as a joke from a ridiculous nickname* would soon become one of the world’s most recognized prep fashion logos of all time.
Kiel James Patrick's vintage Lacoste polos
In the 1950s, the polo shirt became a classic fashion staple when Lacoste partnered with Izod to expand from their classic "tennis white" and introduced an array of brightly colored shirts. The sport shirts were then exported to the United States in 1952 and advertised as "the status symbol of the competent sportsman," influencing what the debonair layman was wearing. During the 60s, the iconic gator crawled onto chests of the rich and famous, including celebrities by the likes of JFK, Clint Eastwood, and Audrey Hepburn. The brand reached its height of recognition throughout the U.S. in the late 70s/early 80s, garnering a notable mention in Lisa Birnbach's The Official Preppy Handbook while being heralded as an essential preppy accoutrement in the film Making the Grade of the same era.
Today, Lacoste is no longer associated with Izod and produces a second-rate shirt that leaves most longing for the classic tennis tail, loosely-knit pique cotton, and particularly thick collar that we used to wear upturned to block the summer sun from burning our necks.
*Lacoste later explained the origin of his nickname, “le Crocodile:” “The American press nicknamed me 'the Crocodile' after a bet that I made with the Captain of the French Davis Cup team. He had promised me a crocodile-skin suitcase if I won a match that was important for our team. The American public stuck to this nickname, which highlighted my tenacity on the tennis courts, never giving up my prey! So my friend Robert George drew me a crocodile which was embroidered on the blazer that I wore on the courts.”