The year was late 1980. Reagan was about to be elected president and a cheeky author named Lisa Birnbach had just released her WASP bible, The Official Preppy Handbook. It contained advice on how to achieve the style and mannerisms of that Muffy Kennedy wannabe next door, whether it was how to mix the perfect Bloody Mary for brunch or how to properly care for your Oxfords. One of the most quoted passages of wisdom from that best-selling tome is about the proper polo shirt. And it had to be Lacoste: “only the all-cotton model will do, the one with cap sleeves with the ripped edging, narrow collar and two-button placket (never buttoned).”
From the days of Birnbach’s prep pronouncements to years prior when the polo shirt first gained fame as the wardrobe staple of privileged, conservative white men in America, this piece of clothing has grown to represent a myriad of groups. In the 1990s and early 2000s it became associated with hip-hop stars and hypebeasts, with brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren leading the cultural charge. It eventually showed up on the runways in Europe through designers like John Galliano and in the U.S. at Libertine and Thom Browne among countless others. But today, as if it were 1980 again and Reagan was still about to be sworn in to office, the connotations of the polo shirt have reverted to that preppy, right-wing persona, only this time our Reagan is spitting vitriol and the brushed up, seemingly well-meaning everymen dressed in the polos often don’t mean well at all.
The polo has become a polarizing piece of clothing in this country, and it often represents something deep and dark in America’s current political disarray. However, as is true of fashion in general, sartorial reinterpretation can help reframe things a bit. This season, the runways have been filled with oversized, tweaked, twisted, and deconstructed polo shirts that have, even if it wasn’t the designers’ intention exactly, made one think about it in a different light. At Marni, Francesco Risso dressed some of his skater-chick models in enveloping plaid polos. Telfar Clemens’s versions were worn backwards and asymmetrically; Christelle Kocher paired hers with black leather gloves. For Maison Margiela’s Spring 2018 collection, which was actually all about subverting average, day-to-day attire, John Galliano sent striped, mixed material hem polo shirt dresses down the runway.
There was color and optimism and playfulness in the polos shown during New York, Milan, and Paris fashion weeks. Though seeing the shirt on the runway in varying forms is certainly nothing groundbreaking, it does hit a little closer to home right now. Ironically enough, Lacoste and its head designer, Felipe Oliveira Baptista, celebrated the brand’s 85th anniversary with a runway show in Paris dedicated to the evolution of the label and its place in the future of fashion. There were alligator logo polo shirts, just like the ones Birnbaum told us to buy in the ’80s, and for the most part none ventured too far from the traditional. But that’s just it—they can adapt to a lot of wearers, a lot of environments, and a lot of cultural innuendos. Polo shirts don’t necessarily have to fit into one specific box, and even after all these years, that’s still the best thing about them.