Le Crocodile: How Lacoste Became The Preppy Polo of Choice

By 1980 it was crystal clear: “The sport shirt of choice is Lacoste,” declared The Official Preppy Handbook. “Only the all-cotton model will do, the one with cap sleeves with the ribbed edging, narrow collar and two-button placket (never buttoned).”

How did a French shirt with a crocodile for a logo become the go-to preppy polo? Our story both begins and ends with the initials RL.

French tennis great René Lacoste was an innovator on and off the court. With a smart rearcourt-based game, he won 10 major titles and made 51 Davis Cup appearances as part of a quartet of French tennis legends revered to this day as The Four Musketeers. After retiring he developed the first metal tennis racquet and tinkered with golf club designs. His New York Times obituary noted that he kept working on racquet patents and painting landscapes until his death in Southwest France in 1996.

Lacoste gave the world his namesake shirt in 1929. The OPH is right to call it a sport shirt, for Lacoste developed it as an alternative to the more constricting tennis shirts of the 1920s. Cotton piqué fabric and a button placket provided comfort and breathability. Sleeves with elastic ribbed edging stayed in place while players moved. These features appealed to American tennis and golf players, says Alan Flusser, where the brand began appearing in the 1950s. Flusser also notes the rack (soft) collar and longer tails of the shirt, which helped it stay tucked.

Simply stated, Lacoste’s original shirt is the polo as we know it today. But for its time it was revolutionary, right down to the logo on the left breast, which was a first. By the time it arrived Stateside, “There was no classic, singular polo shirt,” says Flusser. Competing sport shirts of the era from Allen Solly, Lyle & Scott and others were generally more drapey, fully fashioned and made of synthetic fabrics, such as Joseph Bancroft & Sons’s “Ban-Lon.” These polyester shirts “had a slick, sleek handle, were rather shiny and not very porous,” according to G. Bruce Boyer. Not the sort of thing that served you well for a round of doubles at the club.

Lacoste was initially available in the States in “elite specialty shops in Palm Beach, Newport and Southampton,” remembers Richard Press of the J. Press family, in addition to “favored pro shops at private clubs.” J. Press began carrying the shirts in the early ’70s, “after years of Fred Perry, when the distributorship of Perry started to fade and ownership passed out of Perry’s hands.” Lacoste’s US sales rep “agreed to restrict distribution so as to restrain competition with certain of our opposition,” says Press.

Several factors accounted for Lacoste’s popularity among the prep set. Press highlights the shirt’s quality, nation of origin, fit, design and “brilliant colorings.” Flusser theorizes that the French sizing was an insider’s status symbol that enhanced the shirt’s appeal. And for Boyer, the timing was just right for the shirt’s popularity: By the ’70s Lacoste “was worn by every college golf and tennis team player, probably because it was a well made shirt and had the imprimatur of an historic tennis pro.”

Then there’s the ferocious crocodile logo. Often mistaken for an alligator, it comes from the nickname Monsieur Lacoste earned on the court, where he outlasted rather than overwhelmed opponents. Perhaps it too was a factor in the shirt’s popularity among preps, whose fondness for critters on their clothing is well known.

Lacoste himself could not fully explain it, but he seemed to think the very unlikeliness of it was part of the appeal. “I suppose you could say that if it had been a really nice animal, something sympathetic, then maybe nothing would have happened,” he said in a 1973 interview. “Suppose I had picked a rooster. Well, that’s French, but it doesn’t have the same impact.”

Competitors such as Le Tigre followed in the ’70s. But it was another innovator with the same initials whose polo shirt would come to dominate the market: Ralph Lauren.

Flusser, who is writing a book about Lauren, says the Lacoste polo “was clearly the inspiration for Ralph’s shirt.” It had all the same features when it first appeared in 1972, except of course with a polo player for a logo instead of a crocodile.

If René gave us the polo shirt as we know it, Ralph — “with his brilliant public fashion instinct,” as Press puts it — gave us the broad selection of polos in every imaginable color, pattern and design we now see in stores. Polo’s polo was also well-made in a way that Lacoste’s, as its popularity soared in the ’70s and quality control declined, ceased to be. Polo was Lacoste, only better.

What Lauren did not bequeath was the designation of this particular style shirt as a “polo shirt.” That comes from the fact that polo players took to wearing them during matches, notes Flusser. Of course, the polo shirt is not to be confused with the “Original Polo Button-Down Shirt,” otherwise known as the classic Brooks Brothers oxford, which was inspired by John Brooks’ attending a polo match “where he observed the players’ shirts secured with buttons to keep them from flapping in the wind.”

In any event, Lauren’s shirt became the cornerstone of the Polo empire. Lacoste’s, meanwhile, disappeared from the shelves of J. Press and the mainstream retailers that came to carry it, although a revival of the Lacoste brand over the past decade would make the shirts widely available once again.

Indeed, the Lacoste polo is alive and well in France today. At the French Open (or Roland Garros, as the French call it), which ended last Sunday, the famous crocodile logo was everywhere: On players skidding across the signature red playing surface; on umpires announcing “egalité” (or “deuce,” as the rest of the world says); and in the multiple Lacoste boutiques on the grounds of Roland Garros, where €38 t-shirts commemorating the company’s 40 years of sponsoring the tournament competed for buyers’ attention with €50 baseball caps.

But one had to look a bit harder to find the classic polo. The Lacoste shirts that players such as Andy Roddick wear today “bear little or no resemblance to the original,” says Flusser. And on weekends in the Hamptons, Flusser, a skilled tennis player himself, notes that it’s not Lacoste that he sees others wearing, but Polo.

It’s all a far cry from the ’70s, when, for “the Gucci slip-on bridle loafer set,” Flusser recalls, Lacoste was simply “part of the uniform.” — MATTHEW BENZ

Matthew Benz is an American writer and lawyer living in Paris.

42 Comments on "Le Crocodile: How Lacoste Became The Preppy Polo of Choice"

  1. Wasn’t Lacoste’s was nicknamed “the Crocodile” a mistake made by the us press? He had made a bet for an alligator suitcase, but the US press misunderstood and called him the Crocodile.

  2. Great article! It’s amazing how great a polo can be just because of the logo. I have to admit, I spend some time finding polo’s with intriguing logos. Like my vintage Golden Bear polo I love so much. Amazing to read about the evolution of the polo though.

  3. The Lacoste shirt was actually quite ubiquitous in the world of sport even so far back as the 1950’s. I wrote a post on the Lacoste polo in June of last year highlighting its presence in the world of international motorsport in the 1950-1970 period:

    http://autouniversum.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/porsche-the-targa-florio-and-the-crocodile/

    The quality issue mentioned by Flusser was strictly an American one. At the time, Izod held U.S. licensing rights to the shirt and the production quality was indeed horrendous: stitching, dye consistency, everything was sub-standard. Luckily, this is no longer the case.

  4. Christian | June 8, 2011 at 10:14 am |

    During what years did Izod hold the license?

  5. According to Wikipedia, 1953-1993

  6. Christian | June 8, 2011 at 10:24 am |

    So there wasn’t always a quality issue, and that came later during Izod’s holding of the license?

    Sounds like the ’80s were really tough on nearly every classic brand.

  7. I recall classmates in the 80s showing their rebellious side by inserting a safety pin thru the crocodile on their Lacoste shirts. The OPH’s discussion of the “preppy/punk” connection is a good way to understand this phenomenon.

  8. I do not recall any quality issues in the 1960’s on the U.S. shirts, however, I was quite young then and it is possible my standards were lower! I do remember going into a store in the early 1980’s and being appalled by the quality. What really got me was that piles of shirts that were supposedly the same color varied considerably.

    I have just gone back to Lacoste within the last few years and the quality seems quite good at present.

  9. Despite the fact that the emblem was a crocodile, in the late ’70s we called them alligator shirts, never Lacoste shirts. I bought a couple last summer out of curiosity and found the fabric to be as flimsy as tissue paper.

  10. Grandpa Paul (Press) looked as he would have said: “Damn good” in his Lacoste! His wayfarers…The wooden racket and a cigar for after lunch. The tans back then looked so good against the white lacoste. Thanks, Dad. Another great history lesson.

  11. H.K. Rahman | June 8, 2011 at 1:21 pm |

    Surprised no one has yet mentioned how badly these things shrink. Still love them, though, and have resorted to hang drying them after washing them in cold water.

  12. Dave Taylor | June 8, 2011 at 4:33 pm |

    By the early “80s, Polo started making inroads on Izod/Lacoste because it required a little effort to get them. You could get Izod/Lacoste anywhere (I grew up in a medium sized Southern town), and the name was being put on synthetic crap. Now, I feel that Polo is in the same place that Izod was twenty years ago. It didn’t help their case with the “big pony” shirts. Lacoste shirts aren’t the same as they used to be. Where are the longer tails? IMHO, I think the resurrected Boast is the best tennis shirt on the market now. Although they’re limited in their color/style range, they are the quality “go-to” now, and the most reminiscent of the earlier Lacoste shirts.

  13. “Ban-Lon”, or “the portable sauna”…plant back home, owned by three concentration camp survivors, made b-l shirts, and that’s where I first learned about marketing. Twelve year old Boy Scout, taking a tour of the safety features in the plant for a merit badge. In the shipping room, I noticed various brands on the boxes, and asked Mr. Maurice (Bodenstein) if the different shifts made different quality (price) shirts. When he quit laughing, he explained that they just sewed different labels in the same shirt

  14. Etymologue | June 8, 2011 at 7:50 pm |

    In many countries, “Lacoste” has become the generic name for polo shirts.

  15. I’ve done quite a bit of reading and research about the origins of the Lacoste brand, and also compiled most of the Wikipedia information on both Izod and Lacoste brands. Sadly, Izod have had to claim responsibility over the past decline of the Lacoste label. What many have overlooked is that Izod was as much a victim as Lacoste, as both brands were mismanaged by the (now defunct) Crystal Brands company. While Izod has maintained a presence in many ports (Golf, Sailing, Racing, Tennis) its reputation was greatly diminished due to poor marketing and substandard make, not to mention RLP making large market gains. Interesting to note, Izod’s quality has improved since its acquisition of the Hilfiger brand.

  16. LTJohnson | June 8, 2011 at 11:26 pm |

    @DaveTaylor In 2009 Lacoste introduced their “Lacoste RED!” collection featuring their usual cotton piqué polos, but with a slimmer — less baggy — fit. The polos featured the longer tails of years past, but are becoming harder and harder to find. Personally, I think Lacoste would be smart to assume the “Lacoste RED!” design as their permanent fit. However, they seem content in limiting their classic options, instead opting to cater to the “big pony” crowd with their own obnoxious renditions.

  17. hugoservatius | June 9, 2011 at 5:21 am |

    Living in Europe I can’t say anything about the quality of the American-delivered Lacoste-shirts.
    Those I bought here in the old world are the best polos availeble, they don’t shrink, they keep the colour and the material ist undestroyable, I have some polos from the eighties and they are still fine, in contrary to my Polo RL-shirts which sadly loose the colour and seem to be of a much lower quality.
    Sometimes I can’t resist to buy a Gant or PL-polo because of the nice colours but having the choice, I always prefere Lacoste.

  18. I would submit that Lacoste is no longer preppy as it has been commandeered by Saudis (of the Hugo Boss variety) and chavs donning sideways baseball caps. Why would one pay $80 for a shirt (some made in Singapore or Sri Lanka, I believe) to be associated with such hooligans?

    Vineyard Vines makes a much better polo for the money (surprisingly).

  19. I was a college kid when Lacoste hit. There are two reasons it became so popular and a symbol of Preppiness. One: it’s cool looking and at the time unique. Two: in those days travel to Europe was still a big big deal. It meant that you had money and that you were sophisticated, or should I say it was supposed to meant those things. Those rich enough to spend their summers in the South of France instead of flipping burgers or mowing lawns brought back the shirts as a sign of prestige. Among the folk-music crowd a puzzle ring from Istanbul served much the same purpose.

  20. Agree 100% with Thad.

  21. I’m standing in an Apple store and looking across the way at a Lacoste store: $79.50 for a polo made in El Salvador. What are these people smoking!?

    (You hate me, Christian)

  22. ???????????????????

  23. Minimalist | June 9, 2011 at 8:48 pm |

    For those of us who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing anything bearing a logo:

    http://www.landsend.com/pp/NewShortSleeveOriginalBandedMeshPoloShirt~217407_59.html?bcc=y&action=order_more&sku_0=::WSD&CM_MERCH=IDX_Men-_-NewOriginalMeshPolo&origin=index

    http://www.llbean.com/llb/shop/45193?feat=506786-GN2

  24. The superiority of the croc is a crock.

  25. I am a fan of the vintage look of Lacoste. It has a real endless appeal which can be carried off from smart to casual. The last Big Croc logo summer collection blew me away. The symbol just makes the polo, and with Wimbledon comming up I am sure everyone will get the croc on. http://tinyurl.com/63wvdnz There are some we love :-)

  26. Wore Lacoste through my school days, though that was also the 70’s, when tennis was popular in this country. Tennis’s popularity during the “Alligator” heyday is something I think Mr. Benz is not taking into consideration. Lacoste was ruined for two reasons/by two groups, quality (Izod) and over exposure (Hollywood). During my Prep School years I found Polo, and then Boast. Now it’s mostly golf shirts with club logos, not critters. In this vain Peter Milar makes a great shirt, though not so much “preppy”, and increasingly pricey. Have seen some nice Lacoste pices in last 5 or so years, particularly the woven shirt with small croc on pocket, and the colors often look strong. Just don’t think I’ll ever go back though. Hollywood is all over it again too.

    Disagree with Thad about the vineyard vines polos, they may be some of the worst out there, especially for the price. Terrible quality and fit, especially for price (even though less expensive that Lacoste).

  27. what i miss are those extra long tails to keep em tucked in, or rather just to hang over the ass and look cool- anyone doin those? thanks for the post

  28. Would you mind elaborating as to your thoughts upon the alleged poor quality, Mr. H.? I will admit that they are somewhat on the large side.

  29. David W. W. Stott | June 12, 2011 at 11:08 pm |

    I have a question about the numbered sizing that Alan Flusser mentions in the article. The Lacoste shirts that I had as a child in the late sixties and seventies and even as a teenager in the eighties had labels in French. By way of example, I, as a tall, broad-shouldered W.A.S.P. of Scottish & Dutch stock, wore shirts that were designated “Grand Patron” or “Plus Grand Patron”. Does anyone remember this? I never saw any numeric sizes until the brand was raised from the dead here in the U.S. recently (now I wear a “9” I believe). And the fabric is exponentially flimsier than it used to be and you must hang the shirts to dry; they even tell you not to put them in the dryer on the label.

  30. Christian | June 13, 2011 at 6:54 am |

    That was an editorial error by yours truly. I think Matthew’s original said “European sizing,” but I changed it too the numbers. Didn’t know there was something before that. Will change back.

  31. Admittedly more partial to Fred Perry myself…

  32. Ralph Kinney Bennett | June 14, 2011 at 2:14 pm |

    Thanks, Christian, for another interesting post. Incidentally, reader David W. W. Stott is correct about those French “Patron” size labels. I had a red Lacoste that I purchased in the summer of 1960, my first summer home from college. I wore it for more than 3 decades along with a navy one I purchased about a year later. They were wonderful, indestructible, and conferred a certain assured feel while being worn that I felt in only one other item of clothing — the original cotton BB button down. The navy blue one suffered some bleach damage in the eighties and became a painting shirt. The red one lasted into the mid ’90s when it finally began to fade and show definite signs of wear beyond “nicely broken in.” (It was, truth be told, a bit tight, too.) It is the only “logo” shirt I have ever worn with the exception of one dark green BB Golden Fleece knit that I have had for a number of years. I agree that the quality of the RLs is great but I just can’t bear to wear anyone’s logo.

  33. Great article! I always tend to ask, why can’t they make stuff like they were back in the days? But with Lacoste’s case, and despite the decline in quality, their shirts are very much alive here in the Philippines even if they can be considerably expensive.

  34. Fun,
    I’m French, during the last years Lacoste was dead here bcz it was linked to the youth from poor projects who wear it everyday (from the cap to the shoes, it was the true uniform of small drugs dealers in projects…like RL seems with the big pony to begin in south america), so nobody (with a little style) want to be caught with a Lacoste….
    they begin to use very strange and flash colors…

    The last years hopefully it’s stops….youth poor drugs dealers /thief and others scums named in french “racaille”, stop to wear it.
    And so we returns to originals.

    Last week i need clothes for week ends (i’ve a great and big collection of classis shirt (“chemise”) for work, but got nothing for weekend and you will never see me with a court-sleeve shirt outside or inside, so go to Lacoste, fun it was the “Soldes” (when price are cut by half), they sell in the shop lot of flashy craps, i was near to go out when i see not-solded, the classic colors, i bought 3: black, white, red, and it’s not beautiful, but perfect for coolness of weekend 😀

  35. forgot to say:
    – button quality is excellent
    – tissue quality: big piqué, i don’t know how much time it will stand, in the past when they were made in France they can last more than 20 years (my stepfather have big collection of its when he was young still wearable), now probably less.
    – colors: classical
    – price: a little tasty (250€ so arround 320$ i think), hope they will stand some times 😀
    – buy L bcz i hate the back longer of the RL, and the big pony is the worse thing i’ve ever seen…can’t understand how they can do that…the years of the big C&C and other shit seems stopped now, why a luxury brand make that…incredible (where i’m i can’t have the upperclass label of RL, go to NYC in some month, will took a big stock of RL shirt).

  36. I always liked Fred Perry polos until they, too, suffered quality problems. Then they lost their “tennis tail” and re-emerged in Britain with limited colors and were grotesquely overpriced. Does anyone know (a) the story behind the rise and fall of the Fred Perry polo and (b) whether there is any chance it will return in its original, non-skimpy, affordable, tennis-tailed glory?

  37. will someone bring back the long polo tail- or tell me who has?

  38. and remember the soft Polos, not mesh but real smooth? never see those anymore

  39. I am doing some research for an article. Does anyone remember what a Lacoste Crocodile shirt in a middle school size would have cost in the eighties?

  40. @Carole A. Bell, An article from 1980 has Lacoste shirts at $20.00. Can not speak to if their was any price differences between sizes.

  41. Played golf with some guys from GB who were wearing the original LaCoste shirts with the long tail, tight sleeve and better quality material. They said they are still available in Europe. Does anyone know where these can be ordered from? The new ones sold here in the US are terrible.

  42. I started wearing Lacoste in 1968 as a college tennis player trying to copy the WCT players who wore Lacoste shirt colors of their choice. On campus and in my fraternity I was known as the alligator guy. I usually corrected with crocodile but little matter. Like many wearers I switched to RL in the 80’s. One important difference between the old shirts and new: the croc’s color on the old shirts complemented the shirt color. The new crocs are all green. Sad.

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