OWhen tennis star Fred Perry introduced his polo shirt in the 1950s, it was designed to be worn on the court. He didn’t think it would be part of British cultural history, but over the decades it’s been worn by everyone 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 wearing it, it’s the roadies, it’s the guy behind the bar, it’s the crowd. During my first few weeks at Fred Perry, we did a live gig with the Specials and, honestly, I felt like I had joined a cult. It was so weird.
Next month, the laurel wreath logo polo shirt will celebrate its 70th anniversary with a new exhibit, Fred Perry: A British Icon, at the Design Museum. As the exhibition shows, such popularity is not limited to special concerts – or even music. “You’re just as likely to see a grime artist wearing it as you love R&B or 1960s indie music, and on football terraces,” says Liza Betts, senior lecturer at London College of Fashion, UAL. Betts adds, “It works across generations. My 80 year old dad wears it, as do my teenage daughter and her friends.
The simple design belies the complex history of the shirt. “It’s been appropriated and reappropriated and rejected and appropriated again,” Betts says, “and every moment its mythology gains traction. Every generation it is picked up by someone who is a symbol of cool – Paul Weller, Amy Winehouse, Arctic Monkeys, and it speaks to new people and is embraced again.
It wasn’t the first, nor the 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. While Perry did, the three-time Wimbledon champion, bring to the style when he launched it in 1952?
First there is the logo, the symbol of victory – “a kind of mark which allows the consumer to reinterpret this meaning in his own life”, explains Maria McLintock, the curator of the exhibition – whether you are “playing tennis, headline a festival, attend a concert or go to a job interview.
Perry’s own victories – his eight Grand Slam victories making him the most successful British tennis player of all time – were all the more impressive as he was self-taught. As the son of a Stockport factory worker turned Labor MP, “he wasn’t from a middle-class background or from a wealthy background,” says Betts, “and yet he managed to be very successful in a sport that has a very particular type of class dynamic. So there’s also a mythology around that. (The fact that he’s dated several Hollywood stars, including Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow, can’t either detract from the brand message.)
It was this “working class doing good” spirit, as Betts puts it, that appealed to the mods of the 1960s. tight-fitting and boots, to which the skinhead haircut was soon added. “The Fred Perry shirt fits the ‘clean living under difficult circumstances’ mod brief perfectly,” says Betts. “It looks smart and neat, but it’s affordable, it’s achievable.”
McLintock says she “dug and dug” to find out when 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 mods broke in, stole polo shirts and handed them out to 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 – which stocked the white top – to design a white, brown and ice blue shirt. “That’s when it became a canvas for multiple color combinations,” she says.
Of course, such seemingly universal appeal can’t guarantee entirely positive mentions. Since the 1960s, the Fred Perry polo has had less desirable associations, when some skinheads moved on to neo-fascist groups such as the National Front, and more recently with violent far-right groups such as the Proud Boys in North America.
In 2020, Fred Perry retired the black and yellow colourway – the uniform adopted by the Proud Boys – from the continent, issuing a statement that it represented “inclusion, diversity and independence”.
The brand, still UK-based but Japanese-owned after Perry’s son David sold it in 1995 (the year his father died), has worked hard to diversify its image, ” pushing and working closely with musicians for two decades,” says McLintock. Collaborations with artists and fashion designers include Amy Winehouse, Gorillaz, Gwen Stefani, Comme des Garçons, Charles Jeffrey and Raf Simons.
Seventy years later, what does the Fred Perry shirt mean now? Is this still a political statement? “It’s synonymous with the idea of resistance, so for many it will have political resonance,” says Betts. “Yet that doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. It is the context of its use that creates the meaning. Betts warns that just as the black and yellow version has come to represent far-right extremism, there is a “secret language” coded into the different color combinations: “These are charged symbols that associate you with one way or another, which not everyone is aware of.”
Ultimately, this sleek-yet-casual top is a highly adaptable blank canvas. “You wear it to stand out, you wear it to fit in,” says Fenn. “Honestly, I don’t know of any other brand that offers this.”
And yet, she adds, “If you think about it, it’s just a polo shirt.”