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Alligator shirts: Logos abound on classic polos

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Polo shirt" has become a standard name -- like "T-shirt" or "khakis" -- to describe a knit shirt.

Sunday Gazette-Mail fashion columnist Tommie Roberts described the silhouette: "usually a longer-bodied, side-vented shirt, with short sleeves with ribbed cuffs and ribbed collar, with a three-button placket."

Yes, they are all the same shape. But after recent visits to my college-age children in Alabama and Virginia, I've learned there's a zoo full of animals adorning the chests of students on campuses throughout the South.

I'm no fashion historian, but I did wear alligator shirts when I was in college in North Carolina back in the late '70s. (And, for the record, they are crocodiles, not alligators.) We didn't call them polo shirts -- we called them Izods. The manufacturer was Lacoste.

Tennis star Rene Lacoste practically invented preppy sportswear when he marketed the first polo shirt 70 years ago. Dubbed the "alligator shirt" in the United States, the crocodile polo had its U.S. heyday in the late '70s and early '80s, according to CNN Money.

My dad, far from preppy and not a golfer or a tennis player, wore the little penguin shirts (by Munsingwear) around the house on Saturdays. Now Brad Pitt wears them. Dad was cool. Go figure.

In 1972, according to Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, Ralph Lauren debuted what would become his signature piece: the mesh sport shirt, available in a variety of colors and featuring his trademark emblem, the polo player.

Fast-forward to many college campuses today. The Lauren shirt is still popular, worn for casual days and available at outlet malls across the country where they are typically priced at around $40. (Full-priced Polo-brand shirts are more expensive, but they can be found at discounts in most stores and online.) For "dress up," there are myriad other options that come with much higher price tags.

From Main Line to Greenwich, Northern prepsters started the trend with their boating/sailing/fishing themes. Those include the Vineyard Vines whale polo, which can run between $50 and $80.

Of course, Ivy League icon Brooks Brothers offers a sport shirt complete with their signature "golden fleece" logo -- a sheep hanging from a ribbon. (And I discovered that Ralph Lauren started out as a salesman at the Brooks Brothers Madison Avenue store. He was granted the right to use the Polo trademark from Brooks Brothers, which retained its rights to the iconic "original polo button-down collar" shirt still produced today.)

Move south, and animal logos are certainly not on the endangered list. If you have a favorite sporting dog, there's probably a shirt with his image on it. Look for Southern Proper's Labrador retriever, or Southern Point's German shorthaired pointer. These will set you back $75 or so. If you like bigger dogs, Southern Dignity is set to launch a Great Dane-embroidered shirt just in time for Christmas.

There's a boatload of fish shirts, including the Southern Tide's skipjack and Tommy Bahama's marlin. If you're headed out with your Ducks Unlimited pals, Eddie Bauer makes one with a wild goose, and Southern Marsh shirts have a duck logo. This company goes so far as to name the different cuts of shirt by different duck names: there's the Classic Pintail Oxford, the Mallard Tattersall, the Keller Cut Polo and the Gadwall Gingham. The logo, however, remains the same decoy-looking sitting duck throughout the line.

Want edgy? A line called Psycho Bunny that started at Barney's, according to Christy Waldeck at Kelley's Men's Shop, has a rabbit skull and crossbones embroidered on the chest. Kelley's sells them, as well as many tamer animal lines.

Many of these manufacturers have expanded their brands, just like Polo, to include everything from "frat hats" to ties, button-downs to belts. And all items carry the menagerie of logos to suit the preppy tastes.

Finally, for the man who's confident in his manhood -- or who has a girlfriend who buys his clothes -- there's the Lilly Pulitzer palm tree or the Port Southern pineapple. Not an animal, but close. My son said he wouldn't be caught dead in one. Hope he's told the girlfriend.

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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