History Journal | Vol. 5 | Tennis Polo


- Tennis polo: sport shirt of the working class champion -

At the turn of the 20th century, tennis was the reserve of upper class Britain, and the attire players wore was equally restrictive. Players had to wear regulation "tennis whites", which consisted of long-sleeved, white button-up shirts (worn with the sleeves rolled up), flannel trousers, and ties.

Left: The Renshaw twins, c. 1880

Right: American tennis player, Malcolm Whitman, 1900 

As you can imagine, this increasingly presented issues for up and coming players with an aggressive style of play; rising stars such as the British tennis legend, Fred Perry. As you will see below, he found just the right alternative. 

Fred Perry was a proud working class man. Born in Stockport in 1909, his father Samuel Perry worked as a cotton spinner. In stark contrast to his tennis contemporaries who were overwhelmingly from upper class backgrounds, he fell in love playing tennis near his family's housing estate growing up.  

Despite the unprecedented sporting success and pride he brought to Britain in the 1930s, he was constantly shunned by the British tennis establishment which was dominated by the upper class, on account of his unglamorous background, who referred to him as an "upstart", and never gave him the recognition that he deserves. A competitive sport as it is, the last thing you need as a young player is to have your very own team refuse to back you when the going gets tough. 

But in 1934, despite the odds being stacked against him, Perry won his first Wimbledon title (the "Gentlemen's Singles tennis title", it was called...). Even then, Perry recalled overhearing a Wimbledon committee member remark that "the best man didn't win." His All England Club member's tie, awarded to all winners of the Championships, was unceremoniously left for him on a chair in his dressing room. 

But this didn’t stop Perry and only spurred him on. He went on to win the Wimbledon men's title three times back to back, from 1934 to 1936. His last win was a 6–1, 6–1, 6–0 victory over the German Baron Gottfried von Cramm which lasted less than 45 minutes. It became the quickest final in the 20th century and the second shortest of all time.

He became the World No. 1, and ended up with a whopping 10 Major titles throughout his tennis career, including eight Grand Slam tournaments and two Pro Slams single titles, and also six Major double titles. Perry also led team GB to win the Davis Cup in 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1936 - a comprehensive domination by Britain for four years straight. Success that was never to be seen by this country again. 

Team GB, Davis Cup squad. Third from right, Fred Perry. 

Perry was known for his unforgiving, ferocious forehand. It was the speed with which he was able to hit a forehand with a devastating snap, as though he was hitting a ping pong ball. It was unlike anything his opponents' at the time had seen before. Perhaps this comes as no surprise, given that table tennis was his first love - and he was world champion in 1929. This sort of vigorous movement necessitated sporting attire that wasn't a smothering button-up long sleeve shirt. 

Our cashmere silk tennis polo is inspired by and modelled after Fred Perry's preferred sporting top - a collared polo with a deep placket and a 3 button neck opening (rather than a top that had to be buttoned all the way down), with long short sleeves, and large spread collar. It gave the wearer a lot more freedom when having to react quickly, and afforded much needed ventilation during a match. Another one of Perry's acts of "rebellion", it was a top that stood in contrast to the long sleeved, buttoned up dress shirts worn by the "establishment" at the time - it was, after all, too restricting for him, and weighed him down when he was trying to execute those snappy forehands. 

 

We are deeply inspired by the story of Fred Perry, who had the depth of character and grit to keep doing what he loves and never tired of giving everything on the tennis court, despite the lack of acceptance and support from the very establishment that he brought pride to.