According to an interview with Rene Lacoste's son, Bernard, his father acquired the nickname 'Alligator' from the American sports press following a bet he made while in America to play in the 1927 Davis Cup. While in Boston, Lacoste had seen a piece of luggage made from alligator hide that he liked very much. The captain of the French team offered to buy the case for him on condition that he win his match in the upcoming competition. When the press heard of the bet, they thought that the alligator skin was a good metaphor for Lacoste's tenacious playing style and his ability to keep a hold on and control his opponents attempts to change up the tempo of the matches. From then on, sports journalists referred to Lacoste as 'the Alligator'.
The nickname stuck with him after returning home to France but with no cognate in his native language, the French press changed his nickname to le crocodile. Soon after, his friend, Robert George, drew an alligator that Lacoste had embroidered upon the blazers he wore when attending tennis events.
Origins of the Lacoste polo shirt
At the start of the 20th century, tennis apparel was formal; men wore stiff, woven, long-sleeve oxford shirts and began the game wearing a necktie which usually came off as the match progressed. The formal looking yet heat-retaining shirts were matched with full-length flannel pants. Women started the century in full-length dresses and petticoats while wearing a bustle underneath. By the 1920's, women's tennis apparel had changed to calf-length cotton frocks with short sleeves and knee-high socks while men's tennis apparel stayed the same. It is no coincidence that white became the color of apparel choice for tennis players early on as it minimized the appearance of sweat stains better than colored garments.
In 1926, encouraged by the switch from long-sleeved shirts to short-sleeved shirts by women tennis players, Rene Lacoste wore a shirt he designed himself while winning the 1926 U.S. Open tournament. His first shirt was made from a light-knitted fabric called 'jersey petit pique' which allowed for ventilation to wick away moisture. The shirt was white and short sleeved with a longer shirt-tail in back than in the front. The shirt could be opened for maximum ventilation by adjusting the two-button placket and the collar was ribbed to provide stability so it could be worn up-turned to block the sun from his neck. After acquiring the nickname 'the Alligator' in 1927, Lacoste had all his tennis shirts embroidered with his newly adopted alligator logo. Over the next few years, other members of the French tennis team began to wear Lacoste-style shirts and soon players from other countries were requesting his tennis shirts for themselves.
The beginning of Lacoste fashions
Rene Lacoste retired from professional tennis in 1929 but at the time he did not know that he would soon be embarking on a new career in the fashion industry. After the success of his tennis shirt among tennis players throughout Europe, polo players began to request the shirt. They, too, were tired of wearing stiff, long-sleeved shirts and were attracted by the ability of the collar to block the sun from their necks. The spreading popularity of the tennis shirt prompted Lacoste to team up with the owner and President of the largest French knitwear manufacturing firm at the time, Andre Gillier, in 1933. The company was called La Societe Chemise Lacoste and it began to produce the Lacoste white tennis shirt with the logo embroidered on the chest.
By the late 1940's, the Lacoste tennis shirt had become known as the polo shirt by sport watchers. People who weren't tennis or polo players began wearing the Lacoste polo shirt as status symbols of upper-class tastes such as tennis and polo viewing. In 1951, the company expanded the popularity of the shirt by introducing colored shirts and in the 1960's the Lacoste fashion line was expanded into other areas such as shoes, hats, and sweaters.