Lee Osborne for Rampley & Co Journal
A polo shirt is one of the most versatile items in a gents wardrobe. In this article, we will look at:
- The brief history of the polo shirt
- A polo shirt's anatomy
- Styling a polo shirt
The humble polo shirt began its life back in 1859 during the rule of the British Raj in the Indian subcontinent from 1858 to 1947. It was a period of time when outdoor pursuits, namely Polo-playing, became an important pastime for the British occupiers. In its original guise, the polo masqueraded in long-sleeved format resembling something more akin to an Oxford shirt, with a button-down collar to prevent it flapping in the wind while players were on horseback.
John E. Brooks, who was heir to the American Brooks Brothers menswear store, happened to attend a polo match during a visit to England in 1896. He was drawn to how stylishly the polo players were turned out - in particular the button-down collars on their shirts. He was so enamoured by them that he took the concept back with him to the US, gaining the approval of his Grandfather, before the company put the wheels in motion on a new dress shirt with a button-down collar. Despite the polo shirt metamorphosing into another entity, Brooks Brothers still to this day label some of their button-downs as the “Original Polo” shirt.
When challenged in a straw poll as to what springs to mind by the term polo shirt, the majority of menswear aficionados who took part admitted that the brand Lacoste - whose open-weave piqué cotton polo, featuring three buttons and a soft-collar, was first brought to prominence by René Lacoste in the late 1920s - featured heavily. Ironically it had nothing to do with the playing of polo at all because Lacoste was a champion tennis player.
The ten-time Grand Slam winner was searching for something stylish and comfortable he could wear on court. Considering the long-sleeved version which prevailed at the time to be a little too warm, he came up with the idea of shortening the sleeves. Lacoste also reduced the number of buttons at the neckline to make it more of an easier to wear, popover style. He may have been tenacious on court, some say his nose resembled one, but there’s a great little backstory which reveals the real reason he was nicknamed The Alligator: An American journalist apparently overheard Lacoste in conversation with his coach - the pair had engaged in a bet after Lacoste had told him he would win an alligator-skin suitcase in the Davis Cup when it pitched up in Boston.
Lacoste felt he needed a logo for his newly-created shirt, so he employed the services of his designer friend Robert George. Although the logo originally debuted on a blazer worn by Lacoste - the Alligator motif, subsequently translated into French as Crocodile, featured prominently on the breast pocket. Lacoste’s masterpiece is believed to be the first item of clothing ever to be emblazoned with a logo (although a much smaller version as evidenced on the original blazer) and has long since been the brand’s signature.
For many of us, the polo shirt was first transmitted into our living rooms as we tuned in to watch Wimbledon back in the 1980s - a time when strict dress codes prohibited the use of anything other than all-white attire being worn on court at the All England Club. More latterly, another Frenchman (what is it about les francais?) Henri Leconte, wearing head to toe Lacoste's some 60 years on, arguably best epitomised this look in that nonchalant je ne sais quoi kind of way. It was also an era when cropped shorts were the height of fashion - the Bermuda-length style of the present day would’ve been strictly frowned upon. And you may recall a 17-year old Boris Becker winning the tournament in 1985 bedecked in an all-white Ellesse ensemble.
Former men's style editor at Condé Nast Traveler and serial Pitti-attendee Matt Hranek, now of WM Brown Project in the United States, swears by Lacoste polo shirts. So devoted to them in fact that he scours thrift shops wherever he travels to hunt them down. “The OG original Lacoste tennis tail is my favourite. They are still part of my standard kit, look great under a blazer, with a cashmere sweater or on the tennis court.” Much like a beautifully patinated shoe, they seem to get better with age and wash up supremely well.
The Tennis tail was one of the improvements made by René Lacoste in the redesign of his original polo: the shirt was cut intentionally longer at the back than the front. It was designed for the specific purpose to make it easier for the player to tuck the back of his shirt into his shorts during a frenetic game of tennis, and to ensure he remained neat and tidy on that expectant serve from his opponent. So now you know. It’s interesting to note that this notion has rather been turned on its head nowadays as the majority of us, high waisted Hollywood trouser wearers aside, wear polos untucked with shorts or chinos.
As with all gentlemen's attire, getting the correct fit is paramount. Much like a fine wine, always look for a polo that has good length - there’s nothing worse than one that rides up exposing your midriff. The fit should be tailored but not tight or skinny - remember it’s a polo shirt not a formal work shirt so a little room for movement is obligatory. Remember though that if you need a polo slimmed down or modified then it’s something your tailor can do at relatively little cost. And you can advise exactly how you want the fit to be.
Anatomy of a polo shirt
Details to look for in a premium polo
The fabric: the choice of fabric is key to longevity and how well the polo holds up through continuous washes. Invest in premium cotton for its wicking prowess and breathability. Like everything, you get what you pay for: cheaper cotton versions almost always start to sag in the belly as they use short-staple cotton that can often result in pilling (more commonly known as a bobble or fuzz ball) and can appear unsightly. You’re looking for longer-staple cotton for durability and for maximum comfort against your skin. Even expensive cotton will start to fade eventually but it will age much more gracefully, creating a more lived-in vintage-washed look.
The quality of a polo shirt is also defined by the type of knit. The two most relevant knits in terms of polo shirts are Piqué and Jersey. By knit we’re referring to the process of interloping yarns. Piqué, characterised by its three-dimensional criss-cross waffle effect, is the most popular polo knit due to its breathability and flexibility. But it's not a case of one fabric fits all here, the size of the waffle pattern can vary enormously. Bigger knits offer better breathability while smaller knits are more lightweight. Jersey knit on the other hand has a smoother hand feel more likened to that of a t-shirt or sweatshirt. If you’re a fan of tradition then it’s piqué all the way. Polo shirts can be made of silk, silk/cotton, cashmere, linen as well as polyester blends which should be reserved strictly for sport.
Standard polo shirts bought off the peg tend to feature a relaxed fit that isn't too contoured or constricting. These versions are ideal for alteration by your tailor as they can be modified to a more exacting fit. Most styles possess side seams while others offer side vents which means they are split approximately two inches up from the bottom hem. Always plump for side vents - they look more stylish as opposed to a hemmed, same length all the way around version. More contemporary versions are cut "slim" which often appeal more to younger men who don't want to associate themselves with a "baggy" fit. It’s quite common nowadays to find polo shirts featuring a small percentage of elastane added to the fabric in order to maintain the shape of the shirt, while allowing more freedom of movement.
Collars and closures
One of the most stylish President’s of all time, none other than John F Kennedy was famously snapped aboard a yacht off Newport, Rhode Island wearing a petrol blue polo shirt with white chinos and canvas pumps - the collar in question was more reminiscent of a camp collar with no buttons - a style that can be worn open and spread or closed at the neck with a button closure. If you’re less comfortable exposing your upper chest this style is probably best avoided but it can look pretty stylish on the right frame.
There are a multitude of different collar options when it comes to buying a polo shirt. The more traditional of course is the placket-collared buttoned variety. The placket refers to the opening between the sides of the collar where the buttons are located and is largely the same on most men's polo shirts. It usually has two to three buttons and can be worn buttoned or unbuttoned. The majority of mass-produced polos have collars made of rib knit which are attached separately. Other styles can feature self-fabric collars meaning the fabric is identical to the main body and sleeves.
Don’t overlook spread-collar versions as these can be quite flattering. One piece collars, certainly in sartorial circles, have come to represent a rather stylish alternative to the buttoned polo. They feature a ceremonial style raised collar that is equally at home worn on its own as it is under a jacket. The collar is cut from one-piece of fabric which rolls perfectly around the edge of a jacket collar or knitwear.
Some even feature hidden buttons under the collar to help keep them in place. In terms of buttons, the world is your oyster even with off the peg. You can always ask your tailor to replace cheaper looking plastic buttons with mother of pearl - particularly the chunkier style ones.
There is some contention here, but generally speaking, the tip of the cuff should ideally rest as close to the crease of your arm as possible. Anything higher is akin to wearing your trousers half-mast. Polo shirt sleeves tend to feature the standard "set-in" style while others have a raglan or triangular shape at the top. The latter allows for more freedom of arm movement, more often seen in polo shirts designed for sports teams. The bottom of the sleeve is finished with either a rib knit fabric (similar to the collar) or is hemmed. If you possess large arms plump for the comfort of a hemmed (open end) finish, because rib knit sleeves can gather tightly and feel constraining.
Tucked or untucked?
It really depends on the occasion. When worn with a pair of madras shorts, untucked, but with a pair of seersucker trousers or chinos, definitely tucked in secured with side adjusters or a belt.
Collar down or popped?
Whether you pop your collar or not is down to your own inclination - it can look great either way. Some people turn their noses up at the idea of one (which came to rise in the 80s and then again in the 90s courtesy of yet another Frenchman, Eric Cantona) considering it pompous, but don’t let unfounded criticism hold you back. The only caveat would be to avoid doing it worn with a blazer, definitely collar down.
Generally speaking avoid a breast pocket on a polo - you rarely use them and if you do they are prone to sag the fabric - the exception being a golf or sports club shirt with an emblem.
Styling a polo shirt
The versatility of a polo shirt means it can be both dressed up or dressed down as the occasion befits. The old adage of ‘nothing beats a plain white polo if you have a good tan’ rings true especially when paired with dark denim, an Argentinian polo player’s chukka belt and brown suede Chelsea boots. But they work in a multitude of colours in a variety of ensembles.
What type of shorts?
You’re pairing a polo with shorts so you can definitely be a bit playful with colour in the warmer months. Citrus swatches such as yellows, oranges and limes work really well for instance and the smartest casual shorts combinations tend to come from the cotton Chino (even a Gurkha style), Seersucker and Madras stable. If the top half is lighter in tone, try to ensure the bottom half is darker for a more harmonious contrast - and to avoid too pastey a look.
Tuck the polo shirt in if you want to be a bit more formal (essential when worn with high-waisted Gurkhas), and untucked for a more relaxed vibe. In terms of footwear, keep it clean and simple. Either white premium leather laced trainers, dark brown Birkenstocks or espadrilles if you’re untucked, and a suede penny loafer when you’re tucked in and belted.
What type of trousers?
As above. You really want to avoid any kind of business style trousers as you’re defeating the object of dressing down. Darker tailored denim, of the smarter variety, also works. Avoid washed out jeans and definitely never ever ripped denim. Leather or suede chukka boots work well as do penny loafers and chocolate laced Oxfords. A nonchalantly tied sea island cotton cashmere sweater with either shorts or trousers, worn across the shoulders is a perfectly acceptable knitwear addition if the nights cool off.
It’s advisable to give big logos a miss to avoid looking like a walking advertising hoarding or grungy Hip Hop artist - small monogrammed versions such as the Polo player on horseback and Lacoste crocodile are as large as you should ever go.
What type of jackets?
Almost any colour plain polo will work with a textured or patterned jacket paired with darker trousers. If it’s a plain navy jacket then the citrus hues can definitely come back in to play again, with a lighter trouser for contrast.
A long-sleeved polo can be a nice alternative to a traditional button-down shirt, and are equally smart when worn under a jacket. If it’s a less formal look you’re going for then opt for a 3-button variety popover style, or slightly smarter than buttoned all the way down. Definitely err on the side of an elastic cuff as they stay in place much more neatly than a loose cuff. They can also be worn with shorts or trousers with the sleeves rolled-up in relaxed fashion.
Hopefully by now you are fully clued up on the humble polo shirt, and feel confident when it comes to styling your look. As one of the most versatile items of clothing in your wardrobe, we find this a valuable summary on the history, what to look out for in a polo shirt, and how to pair your polo to ensure you are looking your best.