In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tennis players ordinarily wore "tennis whites" consisting of long-sleeved white button-up shirts (worn with the sleeves rolled up), flannel trousers, and ties. As one might expect, this attire presented several problems for ease of play and comfort on the court.
René Lacoste, the French 7-time Grand Slam tennis champion, decided that the stiff tennis attire was too cumbersome and uncomfortable. He designed a white, short-sleeved, loosely knit piqué cotton (he called the cotton weave jersey petit piqué) shirt with an un-starched, flat protruding collar, a buttoned placket, and a longer shirt-tail in back than in front (known today as a "tennis tail"; see below), which he first wore at the 1926 U.S. Open championship. Beginning in 1927, Lacoste placed a crocodile emblem on the left breast of his shirts, as the American press had begun to refer to him as "the alligator", a nickname which he embraced.
Lacoste's design mitigated the problems that traditional tennis attire created:
In 1933, after retiring from professional tennis, Lacoste teamed up with André Gillier, a friend who was a clothing merchandiser, to market that shirt in Europe and North America. Together, they formed the company Chemise Lacoste, and began selling their shirts, which still included the small embroidered crocodile logo on the left breast.
Before Lacoste’s 1933 mass-marketing of his tennis shirt, polo players wore thick long-sleeve shirts made of Oxford-cloth cotton. This shirt was the first to have a buttoned-down collar, which polo players invented in the late nineteenth century to keep their collars from flapping in the wind (Brooks Brothers's early president John Brooks noticed this while at a polo match in England, and began producing such a shirt in 1896). Brooks Brothers still produces this style of button-down "polo shirt". Still, like early tennis clothing, those clothes presented a discomfort on the field, and when polo players became aware of Lacoste’s invention in the 1930s they readily adopted it for use in polo.
The term polo shirt, which previously only had referred to the long-sleeved buttoned-down shirts traditionally used in polo, soon became a universal moniker for the tennis shirt; no later than the 1950s, it was in common usage in the U.S. to describe the shirt most commonly thought-of as part of formal tennis attire. Indeed, tennis players often would refer to their shirt as a "polo shirt," notwithstanding the fact that their sport had used it long before polo did.
In 1972, Ralph Lauren (when his name was still Ralph Lifschitz) included his "polo shirt" as a prominent part of his original line called Polo, thereby probably helping to further its already widespread popularity. While not specifically geared for use by polo players, Lauren’s shirt imitated what by that time had become the normal attire for polo players. As he desired to exude a certain "waspishness" in his clothes, initially adopting the style of clothiers like Brooks Brothers, J. Press, and "Savile Row"-style English clothing, he prominently included this attire from the "sport of kings" in his line, replete with a logo reminiscent of Lacoste’s crocodile emblem. This worked well as a marketing tool, for subsequently, due to the immense popularity of Lauren’s clothing, a majority of English-speaking westerners began to refer to Lacoste’s tennis shirt as a "polo shirt". Still, "tennis shirt" remains a viable term for all uses of Lacoste’s basic design.
Over the latter half of the twentieth century, as standard clothing in golf became more casual, the tennis shirt became adopted nearly universally as standard golf attire. Very few golfers today wear anything else. Moreover, producing Lacoste’s "tennis shirt" in various golf cuts has resulted in specific designs of the tennis shirt for golf, resulting in the monicker "golf shirt". Golf shirts are commonly made out of polyester, cotton and polyester blends, or mercerized cotton. The plaque typically holds three or four buttons, and consequently extends lower than the typical polo neckline. The collar is typically fabricated using a stitched double-layer of the same fabric used to make the shirt, in contrast to a polo shirt collar, which is usually one-ply ribbed knit cotton.
It is also a favored shirt for those working outside, such as groundskeepers and construction workers due to its ruggedness and style. During the 1990s, the tennis shirt became the standard informal business attire for the high tech industry and then spread to other industries (see business casual). A form of tennis shirt (often prominently branded with the company name and logo) is a common element of a uniform for retail companies.
In many schools that require students to wear uniforms, especially junior schools, tennis shirts are part of a compulsory uniform for both boys and girls.
The tennis shirt continues to have vast use in athletics, used even by non-athletes associated with a given sport in their employment, such as caddies, some retired golf professionals, and sports announcers.
By the late 1990s, the tennis shirt had started falling out of favor by tennis players. , most tennis players, like Novak Djokovic, usually wear a t-shirt, but a few others, like Roger Federer, still wear a tennis shirt.