A Look at the Polo

Eroll Flynn, doing what Errol Flynn does (photo: thehairpin.com)

Following up on the “Study in Casual” a few posts back, I thought I might make a few item-specific articles with the goal of shedding some light on the history and evolution on some of my favorite pieces. This week: a look at the Polo.

The Polo shirt is one of the most versatile options available in a man’s casual wardrobe, and the diversity of its adherents reflects the usefulness of the garment. Polos are beloved by preps, rappers, dads, golfers, and more. They offer a touch of class to an outfit that might be a little too dressed-down with a t-shirt while sacrificing almost none of the comfort. Most of all, as is true of most enduring styles, a good Polo features a clean and stripped-down design that makes a strong statement without using strong language. A Polo is at once classic and timeless: it’s easy to look bad in a Polo, but it’s even easier to look damn good in one too.

Polos are also known as golf shirts or tennis shirts (the three can be used interchangeably, but one term or the other usually brings about small but specific differences), and the shirt we know and love today was first designed by French tennis player René Lacoste in an effort to escape the pitfalls of the then-standard “tennis whites”: long-sleeve, button-up shirts, flannel trousers, and ties. In 1926, Lacoste debuted the first tennis shirt, which addressed several problems with the more formal attire of his forbears and would become the hallmark of classic Polo design for years to come.

First and foremost, the loose, jersey-knit cotton breathed well and held up better under athletic performance. Secondly, the soft collar could be rolled up to protect the neck from the sun, a move that would be imitated by frat guys years later, no doubt in direct homage to the creator of the shirt they loved so very much. Third, the short, cuffed sleeves were a big improvement over the long sleeves that players often rolled up during competition, and that had a tendency to unroll and become cumbersome. Lastly, the tail of the shirt, longer than the front allowed for easy tucking and helped keep the shirt in place.

Prior to this design, English Polo players wore long-sleeve, oxford-cloth knit shirts with button-down collars, but after Lacoste began mass-marketing his tennis shirts in the early 30s, the sportsmen were eager to pick up the more practical and comfortable garment for use in their own sport. The term “polo shirt” or “polo” caught on, and soon even tennis players would refer to the garment as such. Lacoste’s mass-marketed version of the Polo, debuting in the 1930s with his own brand, Chemise Lacoste, featured a crocodile emblem on the left breast, an embrace of the nickname bestowed upon him by the American media. The emblem remains one of the more recognizable icons of fashion, and is sometimes credited as the first visible branding of a garment.

René Lacoste (right) in the original Lacoste Tennis Shirt (photo: PenningtonandBailes.com)

Branding and marketing can get you very far in the world of high fashion, as proven by Ralph Lauren Polo shirts (my personal favorite), which were not manufactured until the early 1970s when the designer debuted his new line of preppy, Ivy League-inspired clothing, appropriately dubbed “Polo”. This helped to further establish the catchall moniker of “Polo” for similar shirts, and gave Lauren’s garment a leg up in terms of brand recognition (see Kleenex, Band-Aid, etc). Despite the somewhat ersatz nature of the WASPiness perpetuated by the brand, Ralph Lauren Polo shirts became and remain wildly popular, and in terms of the collective consciousness, probably remain the gold standard for what we now refer to as a Polo shirt.

Thus ends the “A Brief History of the Polo Shirt” segment of this post. Let’s move on to more practical, non-athletic applications. As mentioned before, the Polo is an incredibly versatile garment, mainly because it hits a sweet spot between sporty, casual, and slightly dressed-up. If you work in an office that utilizes a “business casual” dress code, you probably see more Polos on any given Friday than Ralph Lauren has in his own closet. The softness and breathability of the fabric make for an extremely comfortable wear, while the collar and two or three-button placket (depending on designer) lend the Polo just a touch of dressed-up sharpness. It’s the mid-point between a t-shirt and a button-down, and can replace either in a pinch.

Polos also tend to cut a rather attractive silhouette due to the somewhat stretchy nature of the fabric. In “A Study in Casual”, I talked a little about the best fits following the natural lines of the body, and a well-fitted Polo will achieve this with no tailoring better than any other shirt. Since a Polo looks just as good (if not better) untucked, go for as close of a fit as you can manage. If you’re a tall guy like me, this can be somewhat tricky when trying to strike the correct balance between “long enough” and “fitted enough”, but experiment with a few different brands to find what works best for you.

Of the many, many, many Polo options available, the Ralph Lauren slim-fit mesh Polo has to be my all-time favorite. It’s soft as a baby’s butt, won’t make you sweat, and has a deeply flattering and athletic cut (plus you get that iconic Polo player logo). The downside: branding is everything, and a brand as popular as Ralph Lauren is going to be priced accordingly. RL Polos go for $85-$100 at retail, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Fortunately, as a popular item, they’re frequently on sale, and they’re extremely durable. As something that will last you for several years after purchase, it’s a decent investment.

Uniqlo has a much cheaper and still smart-looking alternative, for around $15 a pop. These are a tad less comfortable than the more expensive options (the fabric tends to be a little rougher and less breezy), but on the plus side, you won’t have to worry about being out $90 if you spill shrimp cocktail on it.

Now the big questions…what to wear with a Polo? As discussed, the options are pretty endless, so let’s take a look at some stuff to avoid. You’ve probably noticed that a lot of chain businesses have implemented Polos as part of their uniform, so avoid the tucked-in Polo and khakis look unless you want to look like a Best Buy or TGI Friday’s employee. It’s not uncommon to see a Polo paired with a jacket or blazer, but I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to dress up enough to wear a jacket you should probably put on a shirt that buttons all the way down. Jeans, especially slim-fit, dark-wash jeans are almost always a solid bet, and a Polo goes well with shorts for a summery look. A lot of supposedly style-conscious people will tell you not to tuck in a Polo, but I think a tuck with a pair of well-fitted shorts, a nice belt, and some clean sneakers will make you look your grandpa (in the best way).

Don’t be this guy (photo: flickr.com)

The Polo gets something of a bad rap these days, mainly because it’s associated with snooty rich assholes and/or frat guys (and with good reason), but like craft cocktails and artisanal cheese, just because a douchebag is a fan doesn’t mean you should throw out the product entirely. Remember, a Polo is a good part of a wardrobe, which means you should have options other than 14 different Big Pony shirts in assorted colors for casual wear. Also, don’t wear your collar up if you’re not playing tennis, ever. Ditto layered Polos. Just…stop.

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