The polo shirt is perhaps one of the most misunderstood garments in modern menswear. This soft-collared, short-sleeved top has had something of a bad rap in recent years – shunned by many for its alleged “uncoolness” and lack of discernible stylish outfit applications.
It would, however, be a crying shame to deny this classic piece a place in your wardrobe. The relaxing of dress codes in recent years has afforded the polo a new chance to shine. Now this sporting staple is just as at home worn alongside tailoring on a date night as it is with shorts to a summer gathering.
The polo shirt is officially back, meaning now is a good time to start sourcing your own. But before you do, here’s everything you need to know about one of the most surprisingly versatile garments a man can own, including where it came from and which brands are making the finest options.
History Of The Polo Shirt
Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, the polo shirt has its roots in the horseback sport from which it takes its name. In the 1920s pique-cotton shirts became popular for playing polo, but the garment as we know it today also has tennis to thank.
Legendary French tennis star René Lacoste found traditional tennis whites to be too stiff and restrictive. So he set about on a mission to create a top that would still look the part while being comfortable enough to play his best game. The result was a short-sleeved shirt with an unstarched, flat, protruding collar, a buttoned placket and a shirt-tail longer at the back than the front. He first wore it at the 1926 US Open and it has been popular ever since.
In the years that have passed, many other brands and designers have made the polo shirt a staple piece in their collections, further cementing its place in menswear.
What Makes A Great Polo Shirt?
When it comes to shopping for the perfect polo, there are a few things to be considered. Not all polo shirts are created equal, and it pays to know what to look for if you want to end up with a good one.
First and foremost, the fit is crucial: a polo shirt should be slim fitting but not tight; the shoulder seams should sit at the point where arm meets torso; the collar should be comfortable when fastened up to the last button; and the hem should sit just above the hips.
Fabric is important, too. Pique cotton should be soft and stretchy – never scratchy. If you’re going for a knitted version, it should be of a very fine gauge and feel soft to the touch.
Sizing varies greatly from brand to brand. Lacoste, for example, works on a numbered system, so make sure you know your size before pulling the trigger.
The Best Polo Shirt Brands
There are many brands out there putting their name to the humble polo shirt. Here we detail the ones doing the best job.
Polo Ralph Lauren
The polo shirt was already well established by the time Ralph Lauren (featured image, top) started including it in collections. However, the East Coast outfitter’s knack for preppy styling and collegiate cool thrust it even further into the spotlight.
For a long time now the polo has been one of Ralph Lauren’s staple items, so much so that an entire line has been created around the theme.
British heritage brand Fred Perry is so much more than just a tennis clothing company. This is a label that has underpinned countless youth subcultures, becoming nothing short of iconic in the process.
The Fred Perry polo shirt isn’t just a sporting staple, but a counter-culture icon. Uniform for the mods, punks, skinheads and beyond, it’s a garment steeped in history and a valuable asset in any man’s wardrobe.
Sometimes less really is more, and no label offers more concrete evidence of this than Sunspel.
The British basics brand has carved out a niche for itself as the premier purveyor of stripped-back luxury – the simple things done well. And polo shirts are certainly no exception.
Rene Lacoste’s eponymous label has been instrumental in getting the polo shirt to where it is today.
The French brand’s crocodile logo has become emblematic of crisp, European cool and slick, sporty style. The original, arguably the best and an undeniable must-have item for any self-respecting stylish gent.
Using their signature blend of classic and contemporary, high-street favourite Reiss manages brings the timeless polo bang up to date via modern fabrications and detailing such as zipped and open collars.
The British brand’s knitted and patterned designs are particularly noteworthy and help lift the polo into statement piece territory.
Poolside hasn’t always been the easiest place to make a style statement. But Orlebar Brown’s brand of luxury resortwear has made the whole thing a lot easier.
The British label’s simple yet stylish polos allow for maximum beach-to-bar potential. Smart enough for an evening drink, yet relaxed enough for a stroll along the shoreline.
Japanese retailer Uniqlo is renowned for its fabrications, using their manufacturing capabilities and substantial buying power to offer high-end materials for a fraction of the cost of luxury brands. You can expect supremely comfortable pique cotton, sophisticated merino wool, sweat-wicking Dry-Ex, and their trademark odour-neutralising, quick-drying Airism fabric.
And the best part? All of these can be had for under £35. Stock up.
Why then are you reading about it in a roundup of polo shirts? Well, the British outfitter’s output doesn’t end at cardigans and crew necks, there are also some tailoring-friendly knitted versions on offer, too. Expect fine-gauge knits, premium materials and a form-hugging fit that is second to none.
Heavily influenced by the laid-back vibes of America’s West Coast, James Perse’s unique knack for merging casual styling with luxury is unmatched.
Known for his high-end, plain T-shirts and other premium staples, the polo shirt makes an obvious addition to Perse’s squeaky clean seasonal collections.
King Of Cashmere, Brunello Cucinelli made a name for himself crafting colourful sweaters. Today, his namesake label is recognised for its ultra-luxe aesthetic, stylish suiting and upscale casual wear.
The latter is where the polo shirt finds its natural home. Cucinelli’s polos are unrivalled when it comes to luxury – boasting high-end fabrication and construction, slick cuts and a healthy dose of Italian flair.