Fred Perry: From Lawn Tennis to London Punk

In world gone crazy for critter-adorned polo shirts, there’s none cooler than the one adorned with the laurel wreath. So how did an emblem of posh English style  become such a symbol of downtown cool?

In 1952, working class hero and three-time Wimbledon champ Fred Perry came out with his original white pique cotton polo shirt. Made for athletes, the shirt was breathable and slim fitting and an emblem of Perry’s keen sartorial eye. It had a lovely twin-tipped collar and an open honeycomb weave and of course, came emblazoned with Perry’s Wimbledon laurels. At the same time, Britain’s Mod scene was on the rise. Mods, having grown out of a vibrant 40s jazz scene and a fascination with the American Ivy League look, were sharp dressing hard partiers. Their all night speed-fueled binges necessitated clothing that could, after hours of dancing, still look crisp and clean while maintaining the high level of fashion their ethos demanded. (So yeah, you might say they were athletes of another variety.) They pleaded with the tennis champ-turned-clothier to offer great variety of color. Perry obliged, and the Fred Perry shirt — with a pair of Clarks, and a Harrington jacket — became the Mod signature and for the first-time, sportswear had become street wear.

By 1966, England, the Mods had faded but Fred Perry had found a new legion of fans: the seemingly antisimpatico camps of Skinheads (the non-racist variety, mind you) and Rude Boys. Soccer mad skins –England won the World Cup in ’66 – pioneered what is today known as the quintessential punk outfit: boots, jeans, braces and a Fred Perry shirt. Meanwhile, a large second-generation Jamaican population emerged with its own vibrant subculture, the Rude Boys, who combined black American fashion choices like Curtis Mayfield’s three-piece suits with the exigencies of Jamaican heat. (Now that Rihanna song makes sense, no?) The result? Stylish, short sleeved shirts were in high demand across the board.

By the 70s, the Fred — as the shirt was known — went punk as it went from the backs of disaffected Northern Soul lovers to downtown London. As much as leather and safety pins, Sid Vicious and Malcolm McLaren’s loud plaid get ups, the Fred was a symbol of disaffected youth, the hippies without posh homes to go to when the love-in was over.  By the 80s, Fred Perry had already become a British institution with twin identities, one all about high tea and the stiff upper lip, the other about nightclubs and, well, the stiff upper lip with a safety pin through it. By the 90s, when Britpop reached Blur-vs.-Oasis apotheosis, the fueding front men of both bands wore Fred Perry not only in homage to England’s mighty mythic musical past but because, quite simply, it was what rock n’ roll stars wore.

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