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The History Of The Iconic Fred Perry Polo, And Why The Proud Boys Adopted It

The Proud Boys seem quite joyful about their passing, if weirdly coded and freighted, presidential shout-out in the first televised slugfest between the incumbent and his challenger on September 29th. As mentions by any sitting president would do, no matter the circumstance, it seemed to buttress them. Ironically, the day before this unexpected boost on the very hottest of national stages, the British sportswear/fashion brand Fred Perry issued a no-doubt press-release declaring that it was removing the now-iconic Proud Boys uniform, what’s called the “twin-tipped” (aka, double-striped), polo in black with yellow stripes from the market in the U.S. and Canada, as a result of the Proud Boys’ wholesale love for the item — stoked for several years by Proud Boys founder and Vice magazine founder Gavin McInnes.

The Proud Boys listened to their founder, and embraced the thing. Below, a picture of a few Proud Boys kitted out in the — by now — regulation uniform at a rally last August in one of their top-fave battleground cities, Portland.

The withdrawal is an unprecedented move for a British/Japanese fashion company, especially for one with such a rich social history, and with such an entertaining track record of adoption by many sets and subsets of fashionable and fashion-seeking British, Canadian, and American males over the last 67 years since the polos were introduced. In the last seven decades, the shirt has traveled a long way on the backs of tennis players, ska and dub-step musicians and fans, football fans, British “mods,” and skinheads in the UK and across Europe before the iconoclastic McInnes, who was one of the the ragingly funny creators of Vice’s fashion-commentary photo column “Vice Do’s and Don’ts,” began telling fellow Proud Boys that the black Fred Perry was acceptable as uniform in the late Teens.

When the shirt was designed and produced in 1952, it was — of course — simply offered in regulation Wimbledon white. And when tennis star Fred Perry himself was photographed in it, complete with its Wimbledon-esque laurel-leaves as the chest emblem, the sales went through the roof, by a 1952 metric. Its relative instant success meant that the company would soon be offering the item in other colors, which opened other markets besides tennis. But it was Perry’s personal history that served to popularize the shirt so that it would eventually make one of the more interesting, long, and unexpected socio-demographic jumps in fashion history, namely, from tennis wear to musicians, and from musicians to soccer, and from soccer to British and European skinheads.

Frederick John Perry was born in 1909 in Stockport, England, to a father who was a textile millworker — in British parlance, a “cotton spinner” — who became, improbably, one of few players in England and in the world to win eight Grand Slam singles, four Slam doubles, and three Slam mixed doubles. But, in his era, from the Twenties through the Forties, Perry very much did not fit the aristocratic, moneyed mold of the well-born Wimbledon “amateur” player, and, despite his three Wimbledon wins, the venerable Lawn Tennis Association of Wimbledon made the enduring mistake of not extending itself graciously toward, and eventually shunning, the champion after he turned professional. Which is why, in 1936, after his third Wimbledon championship, Perry left for America, became a naturalized citizen, and fought the war in the U.S. Army Air Force.

In 1940 Perry co-invented the tennis wrist-borne sweatband as we know it, and his company went on to design and produce a cotton-pique knit polo to compete with those of Rene Lacoste. Improbably, before his tennis greatness took hold, Perry’s first love had been ping pong — he was, also, the 1927 world ping pong champion — and in ping pong, white shirts were banned (because of the color of the balls), which led Perry to broaden his line to include other colors for the polos.

Although the white Fred Perry polo would remain the classic on and off the court, these colors, along with the now-celebrated working-class origins of its maker and star ambassador, helped move the shirt on its journey through various strata of England’s endlessly complex working-class social matrix, beginning with ska and dub-step musicians from Jamaica and the Caribbean-influenced suburbs of London and in Yorkshire in Margaret Thatcher’s grim, belt-tightened Britain of that era.

From there it was but a short hop into football, aka soccer, fandom, and from there the shirt glided with even less friction into that segment of football fans who love to fight opposing teams’ fans. These wearers and popularizers transmitted the shirt to the late Eighties skinheads — with whom soccer fans had much social crossover anyway.

In this sense, after that amount of social and ideological travel by the shirt, the Proud Boys and McInnes stand in a completely natural fashion progression. That the shirt was so publicly and passionately advocated by a McInnes — in other words, by this highly educated, fashion-literate former magazine editor who is acutely aware of trends stretching back into the middle of the last century and beyond — is not a mystery. Like its creator, the shirt still stands for many forms of working class roots, and for a very direct kind of athletic triumph. Fred Perry — the man and his shirt — present a clean metaphor, not unfreighted, but clean. It’s the desire for that metaphorical “cleanliness” in the midst of this very messy point in history that makes it easy to add a political dimension to this polo, as Gavin McInnes and his Proud Boys have done.

And, they’ve done more than that. As we will continue to notice since the coverage devoted to them will only intensify, the Proud Boys have taken the Perry laurel-leaf Wimbledon logo and scaled it up massively, to become their battle flag, printed on t-shirts, trucker hats, bandanas, and the like. This cargo-cult appropriation of the logo isn’t sitting well with the Fred Perry brand managers. As part of their announcement of pulling the shirts from the US and Canadian market on September 29, they announced that they are going to be suing for trademark violations.

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