Check out your laurels: 70 years of Fred Perry polo shirt | Fashion
WHen tennis star Fred Perry launched its polo shirt in the 1950s, designed for use on the pitch. He didn’t think it would become part of British cultural history, but over the decades it’s been worn by everything from mods to ska fans, fashionistas and pop stars.
“So many people have worn the Fred Perry shirt,” says Dominique Fenn, the company’s brand editor. “Sometimes when you go to a gig, it’s not just the people on stage who are wearing it, it’s the roadies, it’s the guy behind the bar, it’s the audience. In my first few weeks at Fred Perry we played a live gig with the Specials and honestly I felt like I’d joined a cult. It was so bizarre.”
Next month, the laurel wreath logo polo shirt will celebrate its 70th anniversary with a new exhibition, Fred Perry: A British Icon, at the Design Museum. As the exhibit shows, that popularity isn’t limited to specials performances—or even the music. “You’re just as likely to encounter it on a grime artist as you are on someone into 1960s R&B or indie music, as well as in the football stands,” says Liza Betts, lecturer at London College of Fashion, UAL. Betts adds, “It works across generations. My 80 year old father wears it as does my teenage daughter and her friends.”
Simple design belies the shirt’s complex history. “It’s been appropriated and reappropriated and rejected and reappropriated,” says Betts, “and at every point its mythology gains traction. Every generation is picked up by someone who is a symbol of cool – Paul Weller, Amy Winehouse, Arctic Monkeys, and it appeals to new people and is re-adopted.”
It wasn’t the first or only polo shirt with a cool logo – French tennis player René Lacoste launched his version in 1933, American fashion designer Ralph Lauren in 1972. What was Perry, the three-time Wimbledon champion, doing to bring the style to life when he launched it in 1952?
First there’s the logo, the symbol of victory – “a kind of branding that allows the consumer to reinterpret that meaning in their own lives,” says Maria McLintock, the exhibition’s curator – whether you’re “playing tennis, a festival conduct, attend a performance or go to an interview”.
Perry’s own victories – his eight Grand Slam wins making him the most successful British tennis player of all time – were all the more impressive given that he was self-taught. The son of a Stockport factory worker-turned-Labour MP, “he wasn’t of middle-class or wealthy background,” says Betts, “yet he managed to be very successful in a sport with a very special kind of class become dynamic. So there’s a mythology about it as well.” (The fact that he’s dated several Hollywood stars, including Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow, doesn’t hurt the brand message either.)
It was that spirit of “working class done well,” as Betts puts it, that appealed to the mods of the 1960s. These young, white, working-class men wore shirts buttoned to the top, skinny jeans and boots, and soon had skinhead haircuts. “The Fred Perry shirt fits the mod letter ‘clean living in difficult circumstances’ perfectly,” says Betts. “It looks smart and neat, but it’s affordable, it’s doable.”
McLintock says she “digged and dug” to find out when the mods first adopted the top: “The Flamingo Club in Soho was just around the corner from Fred Perry’s first headquarters. Legend has it that a group of mods broke in, stole some polo shirts and distributed them among their group. And the rest is history.”
The association with football culture began, according to McLintock, when a West Ham fan asked sports retailer Lillywhites – who stocked the white top – to design a white, maroon and ice blue kit. “Back then, it became a canvas for multiple color combinations,” she says.
Of course, such seemingly universal appeal cannot guarantee absolute positive approval. Since the 1960s, the Fred Perry polo shirt has had less than desirable connotations, as some skinheads moved to neo-fascist groups like the National Front, and more recently to violent far-right groups like the Proud Boys in North America.
In 2020, Fred Perry pulled the black and yellow colorway – the uniform adopted by the Proud Boys – from the continent and released a statement saying it represented “inclusiveness, diversity and independence”.
The brand, which is still based in the UK but is Japanese-owned after Perry’s son David sold it in 1995 (the year his father died), has worked hard to diversify its image, “over two decades of closely worked with musicians,” says McLintock. Artist and fashion designer collaborations have included Amy Winehouse, Gorillaz, Gwen Stefani, Comme des Garçons, Charles Jeffrey and Raf Simons.
Seventy years later, what does the Fred Perry shirt mean today? Is it still a political statement? “It’s synonymous with the idea of resistance, so it’s going to have a political resonance for a lot of people,” Betts says. “But it doesn’t mean anything in itself. It’s the context of its use that creates meaning.” Betts warns that just like the black and yellow version represents far-right extremism, a “secret language” is encoded in the different color combinations: “They’re charged symbols that you click on connect one way or another, which not everyone is aware of.”
Ultimately, this elegant yet casual top is a highly adaptable blank canvas. “You wear it to stand out, you wear it to belong,” says Fenn. “Honestly, I don’t know of any other brand that has that.”
And yet she adds, “If you think about it, it’s just a polo shirt.”