WHen tennis star Fred Perry launched his polo shirt in the 1950s, and it’s designed for use on the court. It wasn’t thought that it would become a part of British cultural history, but over the decades everything from modders to ska fans, fashionistas and pop stars have worn it.
“A lot of people have worn the Fred Perry shirt,” says Dominic Fain, the company’s brand editor. “Sometimes, when you go to the party, it’s not just people who wear it on the stage, it’s on the roads, it’s the guy behind the bar, the audience. In my first few weeks at Fred Perry, we played a live party with specials and honestly I felt like I I joined a sect. It was very strange.”
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 show makes clear, this popularity isn’t limited to specials — or even music. “You are as likely to come across it on a dirty artist as with someone in the 60s or indie music, as well as in the football stands,” says Lisa Bates, lecturer at London College of Fashion, UAL. Bates adds, “It works across generations. My 80-year-old dad wears it as does my teenage daughter and her friends.”
Simple design belies the complex history of the shirt. It has been expropriated, re-allocated, rejected, and re-allocated, and at each stage its legends gain momentum. Each generation is chosen by someone who is a great icon – Paul Wheeler, Amy Winehouse, Arctic Monkeys, and it appeals to new people and is re-adopted.
It wasn’t the first or only jersey with a cool logo – French tennis player Rene Lacoste launched his version in 1933, and American fashion designer Ralph Lauren in 1972. What did three-time Wimbledon champion Perry do to bring the style to life when he launched it in 1952?
First, there’s the logo, a symbol of triumph – “a kind of branding that allows the consumer to reinterpret that meaning in his own life,” says curator Maria McClintock – whether you’re “playing tennis, performing at a festival, attending a performance or going to an interview.” .
Perry’s own victories – his eight Grand Slam victories made him the most successful British tennis player ever – were all the more impressive considering he was self-taught. Bates, the son of a Stockport factory worker turned Labor MP, says, “He wasn’t from a middle class or wealthy background, and yet he managed to be very successful in a sport with a very special kind of class that became dynamic. So… There are legends about it, too.” (The fact that he’s dated several Hollywood stars, including Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow, doesn’t hurt the brand’s message either.)
It was the spirit of “working class that worked well,” as Bates put it, that attracted the 1960s modification. Dressed in button-up shirts, skinny jeans, and tall boots, these white, working-class youths quickly clipped their shaven heads off. “The Fred Perry shirt fits the typical ‘clean living in tough’ letter perfectly,” Bates says. “It looks chic and elegant, but it’s affordable, and it can be done.”
McLintock says she “digged and dug in” to see when the mods first adopted the top: “The Flamingo Club in Soho was around the corner from Fred Perry’s first headquarters. Legend has it that a group of depositors broke into some polo shirts and distributed them to their group. The rest is history. “.
The association with football culture began, according to McClintock, when a West Ham fan asked sports retailer Lillywhites – which stocked the white jersey – to design a white, maroon and ice blue jersey. “Back then, it became a canvas for multiple color combinations,” she says.
Of course, such a seemingly universal appeal cannot guarantee absolute positive approval. Since the 1960s, the Fred Perry polo shirt has had less-than-desirable connotations, with some skinheads moving to neo-fascist groups such as the National Front, and more recently to violent far-right groups such as the Proud Boys of North America.
In 2020, Fred Perry pulled the black and yellow – the outfit adopted by the Proud Boys – from the continent and issued a statement saying it represented “inclusivity, diversity and independence”.
The brand, which is still based in the UK but is Japanese-owned after Berry’s son David sold it in 1995 (the year his father died), has worked hard to diversify its image, “more than two decades working closely with musicians,” McClintock says. Works by artists and fashion designers have included Amy Winehouse, Gorillas, Gwen Stefani, Comie de Garçon, Charles Jeffrey, and Raf Simons.
Seventy years later, what does Fred Perry’s 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,” Bates says. “But it doesn’t mean anything in and of itself either. It is the context of its use that creates the meaning.” Bates cautions that just like the black and yellow version represent far-right extremism, the “secret language” is encoded in different color combinations: “They are charged symbols: The connection clicks on it one way or another, which not everyone knows about.”
After all, this elegant and casual blouse is a highly adaptable blank canvas. “You wear it to stand out, you wear it for belonging,” says Finn. “Honestly, I don’t know of any other brand that has that.”
However, she adds, “If you think about it, it’s just a polo shirt.”