Style writer Tony Sylvester gets serious about the history of one of menswear's most idiosyncratic fabrics: terry cloth.
"... The result is a oneness of the sexes and the equality of the classes. Ties are gone. Personal touches, out. Individualism, abolished. Personality, extinct. The Riviera has produced a communism that would be the envy of the U.S.S.R.".
Of all the folk devils and moral panics of delinquency of the past century, it is scarcely credible to believe the above vitriol from an American reporter posted to the South of France in 1935 was directed at the terry cloth polo shirt.
The ingenious French developed an absorbent towelling fabric in the 1840s first in silk, later cotton. By pulling the looser longer knots of warp fabric through the denser woven weft of the cloth, a plush pile was created, its name deriving from the French tirer - literally 'to pull'. It is said that the invention of terrycloth helped popularise towels, which in turn popularised bathing. The towel's first mass production coming after 1850 when the Englishman Samuel Holt invented a contraption for industrial scale terrycloth weaving in Greater Manchester - England's "Cottonopolis".
The journey to clothing came via the later introduction of French Terry: a lighter-weight alternative with looping on only one side of the cloth, a more practical flat woven side sitting next to the skin. La Chemise Du Plage became a Mediterranean standard often sporting one-piece open collars, plunging necklines or Matelot-esque lacing detail. A somewhat racy choice for the refined Anglo-Saxon tastes of the time.
On another field of play, Frenchman Rene Lacoste was eschewing the long sleeved, starch-collared 'tennis whites' of his chosen sport, favouring a looser weaved short sleeved, soft collared variant for comfort and movement, winning the 1926 US Open in this revolutionary garment. Sportsmen across many disciplines took the cue to abandon restrictive formality for practicality. Polo players, in particular, gave up their ubiquitous buttoned-down collars for this new softer look, made all the more appealing to them as the collar could be turned up protecting their necks from sunburn. An association so strong was formed that by the forties, all soft collared sports shirts were now marketed as 'polo shirts'.
Thankfully the derision and shock from the fashion press was short lived. By August 1936, Esquire magazine were positively gushing over an Englishman relaxing at Eden Roc in beach slacks, espadrilles, polo shirt and a 'single breasted notched lapel blazer of Terrycloth with a muffler to match'. The accompanying Laurence Fellows illustration presents us with a beaming aristo, looking wonderfully at home in his attire, the scene a little like Henley Regatta transported to Cap d'Antibes.
For a similarly debonair approach, team your polo with a navy blazer and white slacks. Sockless, unbuttoned and dare I say, fancy free.