Off its high horse: everything you need to know about polo shirts

Something has changed in the British male’s summer wardrobe. For around a decade and a half, young men have spent the warmer months in T-shirts, jeans or scruffy combat shorts, all pockets, flaps and camouflage patterns. But over the last couple of years there’s been a definite smartening-up. And that’s largely due to the adoption of the polo shirt by vast swathes of the male population. No longer a minority item worn by the clued-up, the polo has become the keystone in a more classic, fitted summer outfit. Whether it’s the influence of the preppy look famously sported by bands like Vampire Weekend or the increasing influence of ’80s football casual, British men, polo shirts in hand, have finally summer dressing. And this season, the manufacturers are taking note.

The “polo” bit of polo shirt is a bit of a misnomer. The honeycombed-cotton collared top we see today was actually invented by French tennis champion Rene Lacoste in 1933 as a garment for players who’d previously had to compete in “whites” – long, flannel trousers and formal shirts, both of which were more suited to the ballroom than the tennis court. Lacoste, nicknamed “the aligator”, changed all that. Teaming up with a French clothing manufacturer, he designed a revolutionary shirt that was short-sleeved, flat-collared, had a longer back (to keep it tucked in) and made from “cotton pique”, a material that wicked sweat away from the body. He then put an alligator logo on the left breast and slapped on a hefty price tag, thus inventing expensive designer sportswear and label worship in one fell swoop.

So why “polo” then? Up until Lacoste’s tennis clothing revolution, the players of this most highly elevated of games sported button-down shirts, themselves specially designed by august US brand Brooks Brothers to prevent collars flapping about while riding on horseback. But as the tennis shirt replaced the button-down on the backs of glamourous (and rich) polo players in the 1930s, so the garment started to be referred to as a “polo shirt”.

But it took the launch of one American label in the early 1970s to seal its place as a menswear staple.

Quite simply, Ralph Lauren Polo the polo shirt. Ever since they first surfaced in 1972, RL’s two-button, perfectly fitted, collared tees have set the standard for others to follow. While the Lauren polo shirt was readily embraced by the privileged classes on America’s east coast, it was its adoption by hip-hop crews in New York in the early 1990s that took it from weekend country house to streetwear staple. In Britain, the “Polo geezers” of 1992-97 added a distinctly Anglocentric twist, coupling pastel-coloured RL polos with blouson jackets, stonewash jeans and Reebok Classics. Along with Ben Sherman shirts and Patrick Cox loafers, the Polo, er, polo was one of defining garments of that decade.

Of course it’s not just Ralph Lauren polos that have made an impact. Since the 1980s, a Lacoste tennis tee has been an indispensable item for many a football casual, particularly in the north-west, while trendy architects and their ilk think nothing of slipping a John Smedley polo under a Prada suit for a fitted-yet-informal twist on office wear. Meanwhile, indie kids have taken Fred Perry to their hearts and Lyle & Scott is now more famous for its yellow polos than the signature lambswool jumpers that made its reputation in the 1980s.

One store that places great emphasis on the quality of its polos is Manchester’s Oi Polloi, as Richard Harris, who works at the shop, explains.

“Polos always sell well here, with Lacoste and Ralph Lauren the favourties, but APC and Robe Di Kappa do some nice ones too. In terms of outfit, a perfect polo shirt can go with a blouson jacket like a Harrington, jeans and a pair of nice pumps from Spring Court or some Clarks shoes.”

While the polo is itself a simple piece of clothing, how it’s worn says an awful lot about the person who’s wearing it. On Sunday mornings in cafés and pubs near universities, you’ll see hordes of our future leaders holding court over Sunday lunch with the collars of their polos standing proudly upward from beneath their varsity sports tops. For clothes-conscious football fans, polos are at the very centre of their wardrobe, collars ironed down, the hem hanging loosely over jeans. Mods, meanwhile, go for buttoned-up John Smedleys, usually long-sleeved and worn with a three-button suit jacket or Harrington. And that’s not even mentioning the legions of people who wear polos every day as part of their work or school uniform.

This season, the manufacturers have really upped the ante. As usual, Ralph Lauren leads the way with a vast amount of colour combinations and an expansion into competitive polo shirts (ie, for playing in). With both regular and custom fit to choose from, no matter what your body shape you should find a model to suit you. Richard Harris again:

“I wear my jeans quite low, so the long back on Ralph Lauren polos really works. The custom fit has a nice collar and a good fit. Even if you’re a larger build, just buy the bigger size, it’ll look great.”

While Ralph is content to tweak its classic, over at Nike, a more scientific approach has been taken in pursuit of one goal – the construction of ultimate polo. Using the same approach the brand normally takes to designing its footwear, Nike has studied all the best polo shirts out there and come out with the Grand Slam Polo. The shirt is made from cotton pique, but the interior is flat-knitted on the inside to make it feel smoother, while its vented collar and specially designed buttons complete the picture. Massimo Osti Studio’s MA.Strum label has taken this approach even further, with reports that it’s been working on a polo inlaid with silver thread that actually self-cleans. For now, however, this particular treasure remains on the drawing board.

If you’re on the budget, there are still plenty of options. Both Gap and Japanese brand Uniqlo do decent polos for little money in a limited range of colours, but on the high street it’s hard to beat Benetton. Not only do its polos have enough structure for them to look smart, but the logo still carries the cachet that its adoption by European super-rich in the ’80s gave it. This is a good thing.

For those who really want to immerse themselves in the culture of the privileged global elite, search out collared tees by Argentine brand La Martina (a company immersed in the culture of the sport of polo) or maritime-influenced shirts by Paul & Shark and Mediterranean favourites Façonnable.

Finally, if you’re a bit older or more inclined to take the formal path of dressing, John Smedley’s exquisite long- and short-sleeved three-button polos add instant mod-ish flair to whatever you’re wearing, as the branbd’s menswear designer Nick Thomas explains.

“The polo shirt has been a staple of the John Smedley collection since the ’50s, but it really came into its own during the ’60s with the dawn of the American sportswear trend. The key component of our polo shirts is the fully-fashioned collar that’s got a unique shape that no-one else has been able to replicate.”

With literally hundreds of different styles of polo out there, it seems that this humble shirt’s march from niche sporting garment to summer essential is unlikely to stop any time soon. As the days get lighter and warmer, it’s only fitting that our clothing reflects the weather, and nothing says “summer” more clearly than a neatly pressed polo, coupled with a pair of smart shorts and some pristine boat shoes. Now, where’s that horse?

This piece originally appeared in the April issue of FHM.


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