Even though a polo shirt is a wardrobe staple, it can be difficult to find the right cut, fabric, and combinations to take advantage of all style possibilities this unique shirt presents. In our guide, we take a look at every element of the polo shirt, starting with it’s long and venerable history so you will look your best in the heat.
2. Polo Shirt Etiquette, DO’s & DON’Ts
3. How a Polo Shirt Should Fit
4. How to Choose Polo Shirt Materials & Best Materials For Different Needs
5. Polo Shirt Details & Quality Hallmarks
6. How To Buy A Polo Shirt + Spreadsheet with 30+ Brands
Polo Shirt Origins: Lacoste & India
While the exact history of the polo shirt is uncertain, most believe it was originally developed in the 1920s by tennis star Rene Lacoste. However, historians have also charted it as far back as the mid-1800s in Manipur, India.
Allegedly, British Army soldiers witnessed a polo match by locals and took it upon themselves to open the very first polo club in the world, where the sport grew in popularity throughout India. At the time, most of them wore long-sleeved shirts made of thick cotton with broad collars but due to the heat and discomfort, they began attaching buttons to the shirt collar to prevent them from flapping in their face as the horses galloped. When they returned to Britain, they introduced polo to their homeland in 1862.
During a trip to England in 1896, John E. Brooks, heir to the American Brooks Brothers haberdasher, attended a polo game and noticed the button down collars on the shirts of the polo players. Thinking it was a brilliant idea, he brought back the idea to his grandfather, and they began to introduce a new dress shirt with a button-down collar that we know of today as the button-down dress shirt. Even though the “polo shirt” has evolved to represent a different clothing item entirely, Brooks Brothers still market some of their OCBD shirts as the “Original Polo” shirt.
The First Polo Horse Logo Appears
As the Roaring Twenties hit, a designer and polo player named Lewis Lacey began introducing a new lighter-weight polo shirt with an embroidered picture of a polo player on the breast in his store in the Buenos Aires.
Rene Lacoste Designs the Polo Shirt as We Know It Today
Realizing that the polo shirt could have multiple uses, especially due to its wind resistant collar, tennis great Rene Lacoste designed the modern polo shirt as we know it today. He realized that one benefit it could have was removing the sleeves; an idea he got from rolling up the starched sleeves of his long-sleeved white tennis shirt.
He also wanted a shirt without buttons as was common of the tennis shirts of the 1920s, so he removed those and was left with a short sleeved shirt that could be slipped on over the head. To make the shirt easier to wear, he invented the tennis tail which allowed the back of the shirt to be slightly longer than the front and therefore more comfortable to tuck in and keep in place during a heated match. He also adopted an innovative knit called pique cotton that allowed the shirt to be machine-knitted, which made it far more durable and lightweight.
Despite not creating this technology, this added benefit caused the Lacoste line of polo shirts to become instantly famous. While trying to figure out a logo which would allow his brand to become easily recognizable, he took advantage of his nickname “The Crocodile,” which he got from his unusually long nose. He created the Lacoste crocodile logo and placed a small ironed-on logo on each shirt.
Wearing his shirt proudly to the 1926 US Open, he won it, and immediately the shirt became a staple in tennis wear and activewear around the world. Immediately the polo world took notice and adopted the same shirts for use in their game. Paying homage to where Lacoste got the idea, he opted to name them polo shirts rather than tennis shirts. The button-down collar was no more, and polo players liked the woven shirts because the comfortable, yet sturdy collar could be popped up, allowing them more protection from sunburns.
By 1933, Lacoste started his company, and the polo shirt began selling quickly internationally to athletes and fans around the world. Looking for new opportunities, Lacoste realized he could sell more shirts if he created various designs, and so shirts of different colors began to be sold, which led to the modern trend of bold polo shirts. Sold only in fine menswear and department stores, the polo shirt was soon considered to be a staple in any well-dressed man’s wardrobe.
Eisenhower Starts a Fashion Trend on the Golf Course
Then, in 1952, the polo shirt took off when a picture of President Dwight Eisenhower wearing a Lacoste polo shirt on the golf course was released. Immediately, golfers from around the United States and the world started wearing the polo shirt as a part of their golf attire and country clubs began placing it on the approved list of appropriate golf wear in their dress codes.
Fred Perry & The Embroidered Logo
A couple of years later, tennis legend Fred Perry decided to make his own version of the polo shirt using much of the same design but incorporating a logo that was stitched into the shirt rather than just ironed on. Despite the Lacoste polo still being the primary choice for athletes, Perry’s shirt became popular with teenage boys in the mid-1950s and soon the polo shirt was no longer just a sport shirt, but a fashionable shirt to wear outside of athletics.
Ralph Lauren Enters The Polo Market
Years passed, and the polo shirt continued to rise in popularity and maintained its status as a staple in men’s attire. In New York, a man who called himself Ralph Lauren sat at his desk trying to figure out a name for his new line of casual wear while still maintaining an air of sophistication.
Since polo was the sport of Royals, he decided to call it ‘Polo.’ The polo emblem first appeared on women’s suits in 1971. To highlight the line, he designed a polo shirt, launched it in 1972, and used it as the marketing tool for his new line of casual clothing for men.
A heated war between Lauren and Lacoste ensued and lasted throughout much of the 1980s and 90s. However, with the Ralph Lauren name and budget, as well as its reputation in the Ivy League schools, Ralph Lauren managed to beat out Lacoste and become the iconic shirt coveted by men worldwide. As the teenagers from the 1950s grew up, they continued to wear their polo shirts as a fashionable choice in clothing.
With the start of the tech industry and more offices adopting less formal work environments, polo shirts began to be worn as standard work apparel. Soon industry took notice, and the polo shirt was included in many trade and retail uniforms. Companies began to realize that they could easily brand the shirts and began to use them as a regulated uniform for their staff with logos branded on the sleeves, breast, collar, and back of the shirts.
The Polo Shirt Today
Today, the polo shirt can be worn in almost any environment where an open collar is substituted for a dress shirt and tie. From the traditional polo fields and tennis courts to the country club and offices, many industries have adopted polo shirts as a preferred shirt for uniforms. From blue collar tradesmen like plumbers and exterminators to retail stores like Best Buy and Target, it seems polo shirts are everywhere we look and they don’t appear to be going anywhere, anytime soon.
Polo Shirt Etiquette – DO’s & DON’Ts
Men wear polo shirts just about everywhere, to football games and the office alike, and with everything, ranging from a tailored blazer to ripped denim jeans. Even the oft tuxedoed James Bond is famous for wearing Sunspel polo shirts, which pair perfectly with his Rolex Submariner or Omega Seamaster.
Despite this broad use of the shirt, there are a few rules to share that will keep you looking stylish rather than sloppy.
A properly fitted polo shirt should skim but not hug your frame, so there shouldn’t be room for another shirt. Wearing an undershirt almost guarantees it will slip from under your sleeve or crumple at the collar. Polo shirts aren’t made for layering, and undershirts (long or short sleeved) should never be worn with a polo shirt. Furthermore, don’t layer more than one polo shirt at a time; this inexplicable trend is a cry for attention rather than a real fashion statement.
2. DO Wear Them Fitted But Not Tight
If you can’t stick a finger between your bicep and your sleeve, get a bigger size. If there’s a lot of slack, get a smaller size. Good quality polo shirts are made from light materials like cotton. Therefore, they should drape nicely over your body without showing too much of your body.
3. DO Size Them to Your Height
Unless you have a penchant for wearing dresses, make sure the tail of an untucked polo shirt doesn’t extend further than midway down your bum. Not only will it crumple and show when tucked in, but it will throw off your proportions if left untucked. Also, avoid tennis tails (a longer back hem) if you plan to wear your polo shirt untucked.
4. DON’T Pop Your Collar
That trend of popping your collar is over, and it’s not coming back. Use sunscreen for neck protection and you won’t have to pop it in the first place. Popping your collar is kind of like wearing sunglasses at night. Leave it for the bar crowd and teenagers trying to look cool.
5. DON’T Wear Large Logos
Recently a trend has hit with large oversized logos appearing on polo shirts. It started with Ralph Lauren and has progressed to other brands. Normally we advocate avoiding visible logos entirely, but when it comes to polo shirts, having a small logo on the breast is often unavoidable since it has become the standard. Some companies offer logos that are tone-in-tone with the knit, which is preferable to contrasting logos. In any case, oversized logos are nothing short of atrocious. Unless you wear one as part of your work uniform, leave the logos to the kids.
6. DON’T Wear Polo Shirts with a Blazer
Some men think they look smart sporting a polo shirt with a blazer, even though the soft collar doesn’t lay flat. No matter what situation you are in, a blazer will always look better with a dress shirt. Therefore, skip the polo and go right to the dress shirt.
7. DO Tuck Your Polo in When the Situation Calls For It
It would be wrong to stipulate a rule never to tuck or untuck your polo shirt. Rather, it depends on the outfit and the occasion. With a pair of madras shorts, you don’t want to tuck them in, but with a pair of seersucker slacks or chinos, it will look better when it is tucked in.
Polo Shirts for Golf and Tennis
One big difference between the standard polo shirt and a golf or tennis polo is performance. These shirts are specifically engineered to allow the wearer a wider range of motion and to protect them by wicking moisture away from the body under the hot sun. In most cases, these shirts are made using a synthetic blend of materials designed for active living.
While many amateur golf and tennis players will simply wear a polo shirt from Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers or another brand, most professional athletes stick with the ones made for their sport. Whether that’s partially due to sponsorship from the brand or because of its enhanced performance capability is tough to say.
Top Polo Shirts for Athletes
How a Polo Shirt Should Fit
Ideally, a polo shirt should be slim fitting with fitted sleeves that reach about halfway between the shoulder and the elbow.
While it needs to be fitted, you also don’t want it tight. As mentioned, you can if you can slide a finger between the sleeve and your skin with ease you’re on the right track. Any less room and it’s too tight, any more room and it’s too loose. The neckline, while unbuttoned, should reach just down to the chest area.
Shoulder Width & Sleeves
Just like with a dress shirt, the shoulder seam should sit on the shoulder bone. The sleeves should come down about halfway to two-thirds of the way of your biceps. Anything shorter looks vintage; anything longer too trendy. Ideally, you want a very slim fit in the sleeve.
Traditional polo shirts are longer in the back than they are in the front and look better when tucked in. If tucked in, the shirt should not exceed halfway past your buttocks in the back or your fly in the front. When untucked, the polo shirt should sit just below the waistband / belt line.
Today, many manufacturers offer different kinds of fits, and while they are not absolute indicators, they will tell you how they fit compared to other polo shirts of the same brands. Ideal for men who don’t have washboard abs and chiseled pecs, the classic fit has lower armholes with sleeves that reach closer to the elbow. They offer a very relaxed drape over the torso with a longer back hem allowing them to be tucked into a pair of pants or shorts. Great if you have some love handles you’d like to hide, or if you simply prefer to tuck your shirts in.
Perfect for the guy in great shape and for athletic use, these polo shirts have the trimmest fit throughout the torso and sleeves, with a shorter back and front hem that allows the shirt to be worn untucked.
The custom fit is right in the middle of classic and slim fit polo shirts. It has higher armholes than the classic fit with a shorter sleeve length. It also features a trimmer fit against the torso, with a slightly shorter front and back hem than the classic but longer than the slim fit.
Polo Shirt Materials
Blended fabrics are often used for corporate polo shirts or grocery store uniforms because the blended synthetics increase durability and stain resistance at a low pricepoint. At the same time, they are less comfortable than all cotton materials, and they sometimes make the wearer more prone to sweating. Usually right in the middle to low end when it comes to price, these are the most commonly found polo shirts on the market, and if you are on a budget, this is likely what you will end up with. If you can afford better quality, you should do so because the feel and comfort of this type are just not desirable.
Performance polos are made with athletes in mind. They offer odor reduction by adding silver to the material or they come with UV protection. They are usually made from lightweight synthetics or blends. Depending on the marketing budget of the company and the brand reputation, the price will vary. These shirts are really only meant to be worn on the golf course or when you exercise — not anywhere else.
While they don’t wrinkle or shrink and are resistant to staining, they also offer very limited breathability, meaning you will sweat a lot, and they look quite cheap. Definitely not recommended.
Light, comfortable and shiny silk seems like a great fiber for polo shirts at first, but pure silk is not a good fabric for polo shirts — it loses its color when it gets hot and wet. Sometimes you can find cotton-silk or linen-silk blends that can work for polo shirts but pure silk is not recommended.
In recent years, linen has become more popular for all kinds of knitwear and some offer linen polo shirts. With its crisp look and sophisticated wrinkles, it certainly adds another dimension, but it is also much rougher than cotton. As such, it is only recommended in blends if you want the crinkly linen look.
6. Pure Cotton
With moisture wicking abilities, breathability, and decent durability, cotton shirts are the most common polo shirts found today. Now, not all cotton is alike, and cheaper cotton polos use short-staple cotton that will cause pilling and faded colors after a few washes. Of course, longer staple cotton will last longer and likely feel better on your skin; however, it will also fade in color eventually, especially with darker colors. That aside, the quality of a polo shirt does not just depend on the materials but also the knit.
Polo Shirt Knits & Weaves
Most polo shirts are knitted.
So, what is knitting? Knitting is the process of interloping yarns, and while there are many ways to knit for the purpose of this article we will focus on just two basic knit categories that are the most relevant for polo shirts.
Also known as pique knit, this is not to be confused with Marcella pique fabric, which is woven. The reason it is called that is because of the characteristic three-dimensional waffle look, also found in the Marcella pique weave. Pique knit is not only flexible but also breathable, and, therefore, the most popular polo shirt knit. The scale of the waffle can differ tremendously. For more breathability, you want a bigger knit, and for less weight, you want a smaller knit.
Jersey knit polo shirts have a smooth surface that is similar to a t-shirt or fine sweater. Often this knit is used for less expensive polo shirts but it can also be used for higher quality polo shirts. It simply creates a different look, and it all depends on your taste. In terms of breathability, an open pique knit is superior to any Jersey knit.
Polo Shirt Features & Details
Most polo shirts nowadays come with soft, ribbed collars that often look sloppy when the edges curl, which they do all the time.
Therefore, it is advisable to opt for shirt-style collars with an interlining because they will hold their shape better. Enterprising after-market companies now offer collar stays that you can glue to your polo shirt collars, but they eventually fall off. Don’t waste your money!
The tailored collar is made using the same fabric as the rest of the shirt but with interlining to improve stability and looks.
You can find them with a classic collar, cutaway collar, and button-down collar. These shirts are not meant to be worn with neckwear so you should choose a collar shape that appeals to you when you wear the collar unbuttoned.
Pocket or No Pocket?
Just like with shirts, some polo shirts feature a pocket. However, it is rarely used and if you do it sags. It looks bad either way and therefore it is better to skip the pocket on a polo shirt.
There are three main styles of plackets used in polo shirts today:
- Solly Plackets are found on the more inexpensive polo shirts and is known as the ‘hidden placket,’ since you can only see one seam at the bottom. It’s lower cost is due primarily to the limited fabric and stitching needed to make it.
- Set-in plackets are very similar to the Solly placket; the difference is that the Set-in uses more stitching on the button-hole side of the placket, giving it a more tailored and dapper appearance.
- Used on the most expensive polo shirts, the set-on attached placket uses far more stitching and fabric, since the placket is sewn separate from the shirt and attached thereafter. With its hidden interfacing, it still offers the best option for a rectangular and clean appearance.
Plastic vs. Mother of Pearl Buttons
For a classic look, 2 to 3 buttons are normal. The more expensive polo shirts should have real Mother-of-Pearl buttons whereas less expensive ones will come with plastic buttons. Of course, less expensive brands like Izod and Chaps will use basic plastics for their buttons. However, you can always have your own sewn on.
When it comes to the number of buttons, there are no rules. Some shirts have more, some less. Most polo shirts will use two or three buttons. However, there are some that use as many as five or as few as none. For a classic look, 2 or 3 buttons are preferable.
Often, manufacturers try to skimp on the buttonholes and sew them before they are cut, leaving many loose threads and a buttonhole you don’t want to look at. Ideally, a buttonhole should be cut first and then sewn. While high-end Italian shirts often have handsewn buttonholes, polo shirts usually only have machine-sewn buttonholes, and that is fine as long as they look good.
Most polo shirts have short sleeves but some men also like to wear long sleeve polos. Both are fine, but in terms of construction, these two types do not differ.
The most common sleeve construction is set-in sleeves, but many of the most expensive shirts offer raglan sleeves, which supposedly gives a better range of motion. But that also depends on the flexibility of the knit material used. Ideally, you should try on the polo shirt before you buy it.
At the end of a sleeve, you will usually find three options including a basic hem, a welt cuff and a ribbed cuff. The only difference between the welt and rib cuff is the number of stitches, which causes the welt cuff to be slightly more elastic. The least expensive shirts will usually have a simple hem to finish off the sleeve. Choose what feels most comfortable to you.
How to Buy Polo Shirts
Basic Colors Always Work
Some people will claim that white and navy are the only acceptable colors, but that’s not true. Polo shirts are a great way for men to incorporate color into their wardrobe.
To start with, you should invest in basic colors including but not limited to navy, white, burgundy, light blue, green, purple, orange, yellow or pink. All of these are good colors but the right ones will depend on what the rest of your wardrobe — and you — look like. If you have black hair and Caucasian skin or if you are black, high contrast outfits will work better. On the other hand, if you blonde hair and fair skin, muted colors and less contrast will work better.
Of course, having a white or navy polo shirt won’t hurt, but a light blue will look better on you if you are a low contrast person.
Once you have the solids covered, you can think about expanding into some patterns such as checks, stripes or something else. Fashion polos often come with contrasting collars, plackets or ribbed hems and will stand out more, but they will look distinctly dated in a few years from now and are not a wise investment.
Price ≠ Value
When it comes to price, polo shirts can range in price from a mere $10 or less for a fast fashion shirt to $1500 for a polo shirt from Brioni. In addition to the price, the quality also changes based on the manufacturer. Of course, a shirt for $10 cannot be of great quality, and generally, $50 is what you need to spend for better quality. Some $150 shirts have a particular design and/or a big marketing campaign behind them and therefore it is difficult to tell how well they will hold up in the end. For example, due to a marketing placement, Daniel Craig wore a navy Sunspel Riviera polo shirt in a James Bond movie, and therefore many men went out and bought it for $135 so they could feel like James Bond. If you need this kind of confidence boost, it is a good investment. On the other hand, if you are about the look and you are on a budget, the $15 shirt from Uniqlo might be a better choice. Of course, the Uniqlo one is made from a cotton blend, but it has a shirt collar, a similarly trim cut and the same color.
At the end of the day, you have to decide what provides more value for you, but it pays to look around and to compare options. Generally, it helps to look for quality hallmarks rather than brand names because hallmarks will help you to distinguish better quality from low-quality.
Look for Taped Shoulder Seams
In order to ensure longevity, one thing to look for in a polo shirt is a taped shoulder seam. This is easily distinguishable by looking at the inside of the shirt on the seam, where you’ll find a white piece of fabric sewn into the shoulder. This is what’s used to maintain the shirt’s shape with wear and numerous washes.
You Can’t Tell How Fast Color Will Fade
Another thing that’s difficult to recognize is whether the shirt has been dyed correctly. Unfortunately, you really won’t be able to tell until you wash the shirt several times. Sadly, not even a brand label like Ralph Lauren Polo or Brooks Brothers will guarantee a certain quality anymore, because each season can be very different. I have old polos from Ralph Lauren that have been worn more often than newer ones, yet the new ones look considerably worse than no-name micro-brands or wholesale brands intended for use as branded uniforms. One tip is to look at the cuffs and the collar to make sure they match the shirt and aren’t from different dye lots.
Always bear in mind that the darker the color, the sooner it will age. White polo shirts don’t show washed out colors because they are white. However, you are more likely to get deodorant stains or stain it otherwise, so no one color is, per se, superior to others.
Wash your polos inside-out, which should help at least a bit. Blended polos will look new for longer but they are generally a bit rougher on your skin.
Soft Feel Does Not Automatically Guarantee Quality
You will not be able to predict longevity just by touching the fabric. Sometimes, polo shirts like the ones from Tommy Hilfiger feel soft, but in fact, they do not last very long and look faded very quickly.
Generally, the more time that is spent on the making of the polo shirt, the higher the chance a better knit was used. However, that is not always the case. Try to select polo shirts with single needle stitching in the shoulder and a reinforced box that gives the shirt a more finished and tailored appearance. Interfacing in the placket and buttons that have been cross-stitched are simple additions that can improve the quality of the shirt.
In the following list, you will find a list of polo shirt manufacturers at different price points. It is simply a way to show you what’s out there. At the end of the day, there is not one perfect polo shirt for everybody — it really depends on what you value.
Regardless of whether you’re a country club prep from Manhattan or a blue-collared guy from the south, there is a selection of polo shirts for you. It’s as easy as shopping online or visiting local stores — regardless of where you live you’ll find something that works with your style.