Business Today

Since 1952, the tennis star’s design has been worn across cultures

When tennis star Fred Perry launched his polo shirt in the 1950s, it was designed to be worn on the court. He didn’t think it would become part of British cultural history, but over the decades it has been worn by everyone from mods to ska fans, fashionistas and pop stars.

“So many people have worn the Fred Perry shirt,” said Dominique Fenn, the company’s brand editor. “Sometimes when you go to a gig it’s not just the people on stage who wear it, it’s the roadies, it’s the guy behind the bar, it’s the audience. In my first few weeks with Fred Perry, we did a live performance with The Specials, and frankly, I felt like I had joined a cult. It was that 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, such popularity isn’t limited to Specials performances — or even music. “You’ll see a grime artist wearing it just as much as someone who likes ’60s R&B or indie music, as well as on the football terraces,” said Liza Betts, a lecturer at the London College of Fashion, UAL. Betts adds: “It works across generations. My 80-year-old father wears it, as do my teenage daughter and her friends.”

A simple design belies the shirt’s complex history. “It’s been usurped and re-appropriated and rejected and re-appropriated,” says Betts, “and at every point, the mythology gains traction. Every generation it’s taken over by someone who’s 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 and American fashion designer Ralph Lauren in 1972. So what did Perry, the three-time Wimbledon champion, bring to the style back then? did he launch it in 1952?

First, there’s the logo, the symbol of victory — “a kind of branding that allows consumers to reinterpret that meaning in their own lives,” says Maria McLintock, the exhibition’s curator — whether you’re “playing tennis, a festival headliner, attend a performance or go to a job interview”