2022-07-29

Polo shirt - about the basics


Everyone knows what a "polo" shirt is - short sleeves, soft collar, small placket. This deceptively simple combination appears to be a part almost of every man's casual outfit. Some of the old guard see it as a necessary evil in the form of a t-shirt substitute, while the more adventurous wear them with blazers and even suits! Although it is not complex in its construction, the polo shirt has lived to see many variations. It can also boast an interesting history, which would be good starting point.
 
Buddy Austin (left) & Rene Lacoste (right).
Although it is called the "polo" shirt, implicitly from the aged sport closely associated with horseback riding, few can unanimously agree on its specific origin. One of the most popular versions traces the polo's origins to tennis. Back in the day, as we all know, the dress code and its implications were much stricter than today, which also applied to sport. Professional tennis players were usually dressed in shirts made of a thicker, cotton oxford, with long sleeves - and, as was customary in the past, starched or otherwise stiffened collars. The outfit was usually completed by a tie and trousers sewn of sturdy fabric. While it is quite difficult for us to imagine a more uncomfortable sport attire, at the time that was the standard. However, a man known as René Lacoste, one of the best French tennis players of the era, developed a garment for players that was practical yet elegant. Learning from his many lenghty court experience, René's shirt creation was characterised by; a soft collar - allowing manipulation e.g. to protect against the elements, short sleeves - the long ones hindered free arm movement, even rolled up, a "tail" - in practice, a longer back of the shirt, which helped it remain in the trousers even during a demanding match.

The most important component, however, was the fabric itself, for it was a knitted fabric which we today call pique. Compared to shirt fabrics, it was much more elastic - which was extremely important in terms of freedom of movement - and also more breathable, providing better thermal comfort during strenuous sport activity. The fresh version of the garment was eagerly adopted by other tennis players, and later by athletes in other sports. Lacoste himself, as well as being a great tennis player, was also an decent businessman. It's no surprise then, that after his sports career ended, he began (with considerable success) to sell shirts of this type under the company bearing his name. The shirts themselves were decorated with a small logo of a certain river reptile - after the nickname René adopted during the height of his career - the Crocodile.


Among today's polos, pique still reigns supreme as the main fabric, although we can easily find different versions, be they made of seasonal fabrics, long or short sleeves, shape and type of collar or placket. As a standard in the ubiquitous brand shops, we will find a shirt with a short, soft collar and three buttons in the placket. Looking further, we can find those made from knit fabrics more familiar to us from ordinary sweaters, with various compositions, pure wool, cotton, blends of both, some with additions of cashmere or silk. We can find versions for the colder seasons, made of thicker yarn and less fitted, with long sleeves, often worn over a shirt. On the other hand, we can see the ones with short sleeves, sewn from fine linen and cotton fibres, often in fancy, loosely woven openwork patterns.
Here, dear reader, you may scratch your head and ask: 'what makes a polo shirt and what makes a sweater? After all, aren't these polo shirts knit like sweaters, shouldn't they be called so?" Although we use a somewhat arbitrary criterion of sleeve length, long sleeves being considered a sweater and short sleeves a shirt, it is difficult to come to a meaningful agreement supported by objective arguments. For example, is a knitted jacket a jacket or already a sweater? Although we can quibble for a long time, isn't it wiser to focus on more interesting things? ;)



As mentioned, the polo shirt originates from the realms of sports fashion, which would also place it in the realm of the casual style, that is so common today. In the summer (not just summer however) we often see it as the only part of men's upper outfit, whether in the concrete jungle or by the coast. While we can certainly consider the polo as a worthy replacement for the ubiquitous t-shirt, we can also hypothesise that it has more uses. While less formal, tailored trousers (say - linen ones) coupled with a t-shirt can create a correct, albeit very modern outfit, wearing a polo made of a decent fabric will be a much more sensible choice and aesthetically matching with the rest. The collar, which is absent in t-shirts, does most of the job. Next up - a t-shirt and a polo shirt paired with a blazer. This is where the purists' menacing cries and sweeping gestures can be heard and seen; a t-shirt with a blazer, can't do such a thing!
 
On the other hand in the picture you can see outfit that combines a short sleeve polo shirt with a jacket. And it looks exceptionally good!
Although we are not fans of this trend ourselves, there is also no point in tilting at windmills, which always turns out to be the case when fighting trends. Let's try to salvage the situation by replacing the t-shirt with a polo shirt - again we hear the disgruntled say that the sleeves have to be long when wearing a jacket! We can't disagree, it's nice to have a little piece of the cuff coming out from underneath the jacket sleeve, and it also looks better when you take off the jacket itself. The collar can be bravely worn over the collar of the jacket, or if you're not feeling adventurous, just leave it tucked in the jacket. We cannot omit that the collar itself must be of reasonable size to look good with a jacket (which is why some polos are even better worn solo). The collar itself, combined with a placket (but not necessarily with buttons - see below) creates a kind of a "substitute" for a traditional shirt, which in our opinion, will always look much better than a t-shirt. Briefly, which blazers coul you wear with polos? We recommend more sporty and casual ones, i.e. those with character - made of linen, thicker cotton fabrics, or, in the winter version, tweeds or patterned flannels. Trousers? Here the range is really wide. From summer shorts, through casual jeans, to woollen trousers from the coordinated set.

Let's focus for a moment on the seemingly least important detail - the placket. Despite the fact that there are few - or even none - buttons on a polo shirt, it is the most visible part. Most often we see those with three buttons, less often with two. In recent seasons, however, a relative novelty has made its way to us, namely "false" plackets, without buttons, which appear to be permanently undone. They certainly make us think of the sunny italian climate, where men are much more likely to appear with their torsos more exposed than in our part of Europe. Together with short sleeves, they make a great summer outfit component - for the classic lovers, imagine long, linen cuffed trousers and tassel loafers, and for those less concerned about the rules, seersucker shorts and espadrilles or penny loafers.
 
The first option is suitable for the office as well as for going out. Buttoned polo variants work just as well, and you might even find they're a little more versatile with cooler temperatures around (then again, but who buttons up their polos all the way up?). Ultimately it comes down, as always, to personal preference, as not everyone likes to expose their neck so much. Given the recent temperatures though... all options are worth considering!

We know already where it came from and how it can look like. Let's not be afraid to experiment with polos, because although they are a part of a rather casual outfit, they are extremely versatile in present times of a loose dress code. So let's be consistent and go a step further, replacing the ubiquitous t-shirt with a much more interesting polo. We can make it play out in dozens of ways, so only your imagination can hinder you here. And maybe how many polos you have...
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