The Ultimate Men’s Polo Shirts Guide
From military origins to modern subcultures by way of the tennis court, the polo shirt has been an ever-present garment in modern menswear and that trend doesn’t look like stopping any time soon.
A T-shirt with a collar. What more is there to say about the polo shirt? Well, actually, quite a bit because the polo shirt – that iconic open-weave cotton jersey top with a soft rolled collar and a three-button placket-front – is one of the most democratic pieces of menswear, as much at home on the tennis court as it is under a suit or on the biggest fashion runways.
With a timeless and ageless appeal, the polo does that very difficult job of binding the worlds of sport, style and fashion with aplomb. And as you’ll find out, it is so much more than a T-shirt with a collar. In fact, today’s polos are more diverse than ever, constructed from myriad fabrics and not just the classic cotton piqué.
This summer, the polo should be one of the core pieces in your warm-weather wardrobe – and here’s exactly what to look for.
What you need to know before buying a polo shirt
So you’re in the market for a polo or two… where do you start? First off, decide how you’re mostly going to be wearing your polo shirt because that will ultimately determine the fit, fabric and style you go for.
If your wardrobe leans smart, then you might want to steer yourself towards merino wool or cashmere styles with a three-button placket or even a resort collar. More sporty? A little zip-neck ticks that box. Casual vibes? Then you’re looking at the classic cotton piqué style.
The cheatsheet below will give you some clarity as to what to look for.
The much-loved modern polo shirt fabric, cotton piqué – otherwise known as ‘marcella’ – was actually first developed in the 18th century and by all accounts in Lancashire. Its most obvious characteristics are the raised parallel cords, which create a variety of textures, from honeycomb to waffle.
With the weave being quite open, it’s extremely breathable and therefore a great option for summer. A ribbed collar and armbands is also typical of this style.
The difference between standard cotton and cotton jersey is that the latter is knitted, giving a much softer and more breathable finish. Typically reserved for higher end polos, it feels much like a wool style but without the eye-bleeding price tag.
It’s a great option for wearing with tailoring or separates, when you want to put together a more polished casual style.
Cashmere & merino
As great as cotton is, when you try on your first knitted cashmere or merino polo, you’ll never go back. Ludicrously soft and tactile, they are both amazing polo fabrics to wear on their own in the evening or with relaxed tailoring.
Although you’ll often read about wool’s amazing moisture-wicking, breathable characteristics, don’t believe a word of it – you’ll sweat like crazy on a hot day, so keep these for cool evenings.
Made from flax fibres, linen is one of the most sustainable natural fibres and revered for its soft, lightweight cloth and slubby textural finish. It’s ideal for open neck polos and camp collar styles given its lack of structure (hence why you’ll often find it blended with cotton), and it’s also very versatile, able to be worn with a pair of tailored beach shorts or a casual unstructured jacket.
Terry cloth is often pigeonholed as merely a poolside cloth (because it’s amazingly absorbent), but this tactile cotton weave is a perfect addition to your polo shirt arsenal. Terry has been made since the 1840s and features uncut loops that stand up from the base, giving it that unique pile that makes for a useful contrast against other elements of your look.
It’s a brilliant textural switch-up for standard cotton and works really well in resort wardrobes where you don’t mind it getting damp.
The daddy of polo shirt fabrics, silk versions are relatively uncommon outside of the most high-end brands (think Brunello Cucinelli, Tom Ford, Loro Piana et al.) and take you into proper baller territory.
Made from silk worms fed on a diet of mulberry leaves, silk is incredibly soft and strong, with types like shantung having a similar slubby finish to linen. Yes, you’ll pay through the nose for a silk polo but smugness on that level is worth every penny.
Polo shirt style
In style as in life, less is often more, which is why the plain polo always punches above its weight. There isn’t a colour on this earth that hasn’t been ascribed to a polo shirt so you’ll never be short of options on that front.
Merino and cashmere styles tend to stay in the dark muted range of navy and charcoal, whereas cotton piqué takes dye very well so expect the whole rainbow.
A number of brands include a contrast tramline on the collar and/or sleeves which lends the polo a more casual, sportier edge, or they’ll use tonal effects on the collar, placket and hem which provides a smarter finish.
Patterned polos aren’t as common as you might have thought, simply because the structure and function of the polo doesn’t really require any extra embellishment. It is a plain garment at heart, but you can certainly find styles with preppy colour blocks and stripes.
Probably the most common are cotton jacquard styles (jacquard is just the term for a decorative design made on a jacquard loom), which can consist of quite intricate patterns slightly raised from the base fabric. Our favourite though are polos with vertical stripes, which somehow add a slightly louche sartorial touch.
Whether in cotton or cashmere, knitted polos bring softness and texture to the polo party. Smarter and more sophisticated that the common cotton piqué polo, knitted versions work a dream under tailoring, creating an interesting contrast thanks to the tactile handle.
By definition, knitted collars are devoid of structure so opt for open collar styles (see below).
The most common of necklines, the button placket typically consists of two or three buttons and a soft turn-down collar.
If you’ve ever owned a polo shirt, you’ll know just how frustrating the collar can be, loosing the fold after a wash and curling at the edges. This can be avoided by looking for shirts with an interlining in the collar, which adds a little extra stiffness to help keep the shape.
If the button placket is the classic polo set-up, then the open neck variant is like the wayward younger brother who makes his own rules. It can come in the form of a resort collar, single-button loop closure, Cuban/camp collar, with each one having its own unique level of casual cool.
When worn with relaxed tailoring, they definitely bring 80s Miami vibes, which is no bad thing.
A modern alternative to the traditional button placket, the zip neck borrows from sportswear pieces such as track tops, giving it an athletic look that is easy to wear. The zip is typically short, a similar length to a button placket, but you can also find more contemporary zip-through styles that you can wear open with a vest or plain white T-shirt.
The most stylish polo shirt brands for 2022
Hailing from Nottingham, England, Sunspel was founded in 1860 by Thomas Hill and has since become renowned for its high-quality staples, not least the Riviera polo, worn by a certain British spy by the name of Bond, James Bond, in Casino Royale.
Sunspel’s Riviera polo is cut from high quality cotton mesh that drapes really naturally with a slim fit.
Polo Ralph Lauren
What needs to be said about Polo Ralph Lauren? The brand that took preppy mainstream with its classic three-button polos is still the go-to label for cotton piqué styles in every colour under the sun. That logo on the left side of the chest stills carries as much cachet as it ever did.
Uniqlo’s minimalist aesthetic was always going to be a winner when it came to polo shirts. The Japanese casualwear giant does a fine line in polos, from classic cotton piqué styles to knitted merino versions and high-performance fabrics, all at crazy good price points.
Always keep an eye out for their collabs, too.
Much like René Lacoste, Fred Perry launched his famous laurel wreath polos for games of tennis, but they were quickly appropriated by numerous British subcultures right the way through the 60s to the 90s.
With that iconic tipping on the collar and/or sleeves, Perry’s polos have a sophisticated sportiness to them and a cultural significance that most brands wish they had.
That iconic crocodile came about as a nickname Lacoste picked up after winning a wager with the captain of the French Davis Cup team, in which the prize was an alligator-skin suitcase.
Ever since it has had pride of place on Lacoste’s cotton petit piqué polos, which come in myriad colours. Mother of pearl buttons as standard.
While the Italian luxury brand might be better known for its maximalist collections created by Alessandro Michele, its seasonal polo shirts have serious fashion cachet. They don’t look too shabby either.
Often featuring the geometric logo print or the iconic Gucci red and green in contrast collars and armbands, these are polo shirts for people who like audiences.
Looking for a polo for your next bouji summer holiday? Resortwear specialists Orlebar Brown can equip you with some stunning slim-fit designs in every configuration imaginable – think terry cloth, linen, cotton piqué, button placket, zip neck, resort collar, you name it.
Super sophisticated and versatile too, they’ll double-up nicely as beachwear and casualwear.
LA’s maverick of minimalism of course does great polos, just don’t expect a kaleidoscope of colours. In fact, just expect grey, white and black.
Nevertheless, Perse’s polos come in a variety of cotton jersey styles, including a sueded option that has a unique tactile finish, as well as a super-soft brushed cotton version. Manna from heaven if you’re into pared-back style.
What you lose in personal wealth you get back in pure fabric indulgence wen you purchase a Brunello Cucinelli polo shirt. The Italian maverick and purveyor of some of the finest clothes on earth naturally also designs some pretty smooth polos in cotton piqué and cotton jersey styles.
Cucinelli often uses a shirt collar style that has more structure than your typical ribbed collar version, so they team well with suits and tailored separates.
For over 200 years, John Smedley has been designed and manufacturing some of the world’s best knitwear out of Derbyshire, UK, and while knits are what they’re best known for, do not sleep on their exquisite long-sleeved polos constructed from a blend of extrafine merino wool and Sea Island cotton. Insanely soft and super polished beneath an unstructured linen blazer..
The history of the polo shirt
Although tennis took the garment mainstream, the earliest iterations of the polo shirt were borne of military origins, like so many other menswear items that have stood the test of time. They can be traced back the British colonialists in late 19th century India, who found that their regular issue shirts were no good for playing polo in when off-duty since the collar points would flap in their faces.
Hence, necessity gave rise to the button-down collar, which was truly the first ‘polo’. Of course, the Oxford cloth button-down, or OCBD as we like to call it, is a very different shirt from what we know as the polo, which is in large part due to the smarts of an American businessman by the name of John E. Brooks, the grandson of Henry Sands Brooks, who founded the Brooks Brothers company in 1818.
Brooks the grandson, like many ambitious Americans at the time, was a fan of the styles, culture and mores of the English upper crust. While on a trip to the UK in the 1890s, Brooks discovered these new ‘polo shirts’ being worn by society’s movers and shakers, and immediately began to produce his very own version when he returned to the States. The Brooks version was still an evolutionary step away from the sporty version we know of today. For that part of the evolution, we must hop back over the pond to France, where a certain Mr Lacoste was ‘insatisfait’ with his tennis attire.
René Lacoste was the R-Fed of the 20s, accumulating Grand Slam after after Grand Slam, and while his sporting notoriety was at its peak, his entrepreneurship was only just getting started. Lacoste was a visionary in many ways, but not least for understanding the potential of sports branding and how persuasive sports stars could be in selling clothing to the masses. So while all his contemporaries wore a long-sleeved shirt to play in, Lacoste broke rank and designed his own short-sleeved, open-weave cotton style, and so was born La Chemise Lacoste.
The polo shirt’s addendum was written by Ralph Lauren, who saw a prime opportunity to capitalise on the preppy popularity of polo shirts and so launched his own line in 1967. To say that Polo Ralph Lauren was a success is an understatement. Lauren single-handedly made the polo an iconic piece of modern Americana and a must-have garment for cool collegiate types and upwardly mobile Americans. Like Lacoste before him, Lauren made the brand logo on the left chest an emblem of taste, but in an era that was fast commercialising anything and everything.
Today, as proven above, brands old and new alike are creating luxury styles that doff their caps at the original cotton piqué style, but they’re also evolving the polo with sumptuous fabrics and new collar configurations that make this humble ‘T-shirt with a collar’ far more important than it might at first seem.