WWhen 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’s appealing to new people and being 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? he launched 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”.
Perry’s own victories – his eight Grand Slam victories make him the most successful British tennis player of all time – were all the more impressive because he was self-taught. Like the son of a Stockport factory worker turned Labor MP, “he didn’t come from a middle class or wealthy background,” Betts says, “and yet he managed to become very successful in a sport with a very special kind of class dynamic. So there is also a mythology around that.” (That he’s dated several Hollywood stars, including Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow, can’t hurt the brand message, either.)
It was that “working class well made” spirit, as Betts puts it, that appealed to the 60s mods. These young, white, working-class men wore the shirt buttoned to the top, with tight jeans and boots, to which the skinhead haircut was soon added. “The Fred Perry shirt fits the mod letter of ‘clean living under difficult circumstances’ perfectly,” says Betts. “It looks smart and neat, but it’s affordable, it’s doable.”
McLintock says they “grooved and dug” to find out when the mods first adopted the crest: “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 some polo shirts and distributed them among their group and the rest is history.”
The association with football culture, according to McLintock, began when a West Ham fan sports store called Lillywhites — which stocked the white top — to design a white, maroon, and ice blue shirt. “Then it became a canvas for multiple color combinations,” she says.
Of course, such a seemingly universal appeal cannot guarantee a completely positive endorsement. The Fred Perry polo has had less desirable associations since the 1960s, as some skinheads moved to neo-fascist groups like the National Front, and more recently with violent far-right groups like the Proud Boys in North America.
In 2020, Fred Perry took the black and yellow colourway – the Proud Boys took on the uniform – from the continent, saying it stood for “inclusiveness, diversity and independence”.
Still based in Britain but in Japanese hands after Perry’s son David sold it in 1995 (the year his father died), the brand has worked hard to diversify its image, “by pushing and closely collaborating with musicians for two decades,” says McLintock. Collaborations with artists and fashion designers have included 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 it still a political statement? “It’s synonymous with the idea of resistance, so for many it will have political resonance,” Betts says. “Yet it doesn’t mean anything in itself. It is the context of the usage that creates the meaning.” Betts warns that just as the black-and-yellow version came to represent far-right extremism, there’s a “secret language” encoded in the various color combinations: “They’re loaded symbols that somehow connect you, which not everyone is aware of.” .”
Ultimately, this smart yet casual top is a highly adaptable blank canvas. “You wear it to stand out, you wear it to match,” says Fenn. “I honestly don’t know of any other brand that has that.”
And yet, she adds, “If you think about it, it’s just a polo shirt.”