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EVERYONE FOR TENNIS: THE FRED PERRY STORY

Posted on April 15 2017

Today, we think nothing of sportswear being a part of our casual wardrobe. Indeed, whole divisions of sportswear brands are now devoted to fashion, but how exactly did this unlikely union come about? One could easily argue that the man responsible for this momentous change is British sporting legend, Fred Perry. 

Fred Perry in action at Wimbledon (1936)

Considered by many to be one of the greatest players of all time, Fred Perry is a British cultural icon. The son of a cotton spinner, Perry was a working-class lad from Stockport who smashed through the doors of the classist tennis establishment and went on to become the tennis World Number One. Over the course of his career, Perry won ten Majors, including eight Grand Slam and Pro Slam single titles, as well as six Major doubles titles and won three consecutive Wimbledon Championships from 1934 -1936. On top of all this, Perry was also the first player to win a "Career Grand Slam” by winning all four singles titles.

Fred at home in Ealing with some of his trophies (1934)

Perry’s first love had been table tennis, and he won the world table tennis singles title at Budapest in 1929, aged just nineteen. Focusing instead on lawn tennis, Perry brought to the court some of the speed and aggression he’d learnt from table tennis, making him a fast and formidable opponent. However, despite his talent and achievements, his brash approach wasn’t exactly welcomed by the Lawn Tennis Association. In his biography Perry wrote: "Some elements in the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association looked down on me as a hot-headed, outspoken tearaway rebel, not quite the class of the chap they really wanted to see winning Wimbledon, even if he was English.”

Explaining strokes at the International Table Tennis Championships (1932)

Perhaps it was the rebellious element in Perry that allowed him to capitalise on his fame and create the Fred Perry brand. As a tennis player, Perry used to wrap medical gauze around the wrist of his right hand to protect his racket and wipe away the sweat from his brow. In the late 1940s, Perry was approached by the Austrian footballer Tibby Wegner with the idea of a similar antiperspirant to be worn around the wrist, and the two went on to develop what is essentially the first sweatband. 

The wristband that helped win the Wimbledon final (1934)

Initially, Perry had wanted a pipe as the logo for his brand, but Wegner wisely advised him that this might not be as universally popular with the female demographic. Instead, they branded with the laurel wreath that had adorned Perry’s Davis Cup sweater and touring blazer (and based on the original Wimbledon logo). Perry himself was certainly popular with the fairer sex - he was married four times and romantically linked to numerous Hollywood actresses, including Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow and Bette Davis. 

Actress Mary Lawson to whom Fred was engaged but never married (1934)

In 1952, Fred Perry launched what is now considered to be a British design classic. The Fred Perry "M3" tennis shirt was a simple all-white cotton pique polo-style shirt, with a slim silhouette and a focus on lightweight durability. Launched at Wimbledon, the shirt was an instant success after crowd favourite Jaroslav Drobny wore it in the men's final... together with a pair of sunglasses!

The extraordinarily cool Jaroslav Drobny in the Wimbledon men's final (1952)

Whilst Drobny had given the Fred Perry shirt a stylish debut, it was with the emerging Mod movement of the late 1950s and early 60s that Perry really found success. Pairing the tennis shirt with their slim-fitting suits, the early Mods took a relatively utilitarian piece of sporting attire and dressed it up, buttoning it to the top, and creating an entirely new informal look. Before this, taking a casual sporting garment and deliberately pairing it with more formal attire was almost unheard of, but with the Fred Perry, sportswear made the transition into fashion and soon his tennis shirt became a staple in any self-respecting Mod’s wardrobe.

1960s Mods with scooters, suits and tennis shirts

As time went on, customers began to request different colours of the M3 tennis shirt, and the company responded by offering a number of different shades - partly as a response to customer demand, but also as a table tennis shirt (as white was not permitted). The new colours were not only worn by Mods and table-tennis players; Sean Connery wore a navy M3 as James Bond at the height of Bondmania, in 1965’s “Thunderball”. At this time, Bond was considered to be the arbiter of all things stylish, and his wearing of the Fred Perry shirt (one of the few visibly branded articles of clothing Bond has ever worn) was no small endorsement.  

James Bond is taken for a ride wearing his Fred Perry M3 tennis shirt

Movements change, but somehow Fred Perry’s shirts seemed to move seamlessly with them. From the Mods (who were becoming increasingly more dandified in the latter part of the 1960s) into the new more working-class sub-cultures of Skinheads, 2-Tone, and even into Punk, Fred Perry shirts were ever-present. Perhaps the best illustration of the 60s working-class Mod is the 1979 film “Quadrophenia”, which charts young member of the movement, Jimmy (Phil Daniels), as he comes to terms with his identity. Jimmy - the quintessential Mod - naturally, wears Fred Perry.

Phil Daniels as Jimmy in Quadrophenia (1979)

Skinhead and Mod revivalism in the late 70s and early 80s with bands such as The Jam - and in particular their front man, Paul Weller - saw a revival of the Mod aesthetic and, of course, Fred Perry shirts. Whilst they continued to be worn, they were harder to find. Far from being a mainstream fashion item, they were stocked in sporting goods stores and one or two small boutiques off Carnaby Street.

The "Modfather" Paul Weller

Sadly, the 80s saw Skinheads begin to be associated with fascism, nationalism, and racism, but this was not wholly indicative of the culture. Indeed, the film “This is England”, set in 1983, charts the division amongst them as these less than desirable elements began to present themselves. As a window onto the fashions of the period, the film is well worth a viewing. Whilst the Fred Perry was still embraced by these sub-culture movements, the company’s fortunes were failing, perhaps in part because of the associations with less savoury aspects of Skinhead culture. 

The cast of This Is England (1983)

However, a new opportunity arose in the early-to-mid-90s when British band Blur - influenced by music of The Who and The Kinks and the visual aesthetics of “Quadrophenia” and Mike Leigh’s “Meantime”, instigated a new Mod revival of sorts. Blur, sick of the popularity of Grunge and the Americanisation of British youth culture, called for a return to all things British made, and this manifesto was delivered whilst wearing Fred Perry. The Britpop movement that dominated both music and fashion throughout the mid-to-late 90s adopted the Fred Perry with aplomb, and carried the brand into the 21st century.  

Blur frontman Damon Albarn in Fred Perry.... and Baracuta

The new millennium saw Fred Perry reinvent itself yet again, with a series of collaborations that began with Japanese brand Commes des Garçons, and continued with a number of other designers, artists, musicians and sports personalities. These include, Belgian designer Raf Simons, Beatle's cover artist Peter Blake, Gwen Stefani of No Doubt, the late Amy Winehouse, and British cycling champion Bradley Wiggins. Also, to show that the company had not lost touch with its roots, it sponsored Andy Murray's early tennis career - some irony given that Murray went on to recently break the records that had been held by Fred for 77 years.   

Fred Perry and Andy Murray photographed during their early careers

Sixty-five years after its launch, the Fred Perry tennis shirt is still - like its namesake - a British icon, and to celebrate this fact, a Reissue collection of archive pieces has been Made in England to original specification. They include, of course, the M3 tennis shirts, and the warm-up bomber jacket to wear over them - thus ensuring that these classics continue to be worn by those who understand history and appreciate style.

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