The polo is one of the most popular garments worldwide, and happily in its element as athletic attire. They are relatively stretchy and easy to move in, and commonly made in a cotton pique fabric that breathes well during the warmer months. The collar adorns them with a slightly more sophisticated touch making them perfectly suited for country club sports. The most iconic version definitely belongs to Ralph Lauren, who built an entire sub-label clothing line – beyond just polo shirts – based on the name. Similarly to the Lacoste polo, they are also easy to counterfeit, which only increases their massive popularity.
Sadly, the polo shirt has been done a great injustice. As the name suggests, polo shirts originated from the namesake sport, typically considered an upper class society affair. The sporty shirt however has been hijacked and re-appropriated to the last thing resembling classy. Remember those company barbeques you were probably dragged to as a child? Maybe your father wore an oversized polo with cargo shorts. Or how about those iconic bright blue uniforms at Best Buy? But perhaps the most egregious misuse is the widespread adoption as the default business casual staple being the most minimally acceptable dressy article. As if it somehow passes as “formal” simply because it has a collar – anything dressier would just be far too uncomfortable right? The common mistakes are improper sizing, large garish logos, failing to tuck in when they should and combining with goofy fitting khakis.
I even vaguely remember back in high school when fellow students thought it appropriate to wear two polos in bold contrasting colours at the same time, one on top of the other with – gasp – both collars popped: the quintessential early 2000s "bro" look. These were dark times indeed. So alas, the polo has seen better days.
Fortunately this course can be corrected as the polo does have real potential outside of horse back sports and free company branded swag. A couple of easy tips can help make them an integral part of your style toolbox. First, they tend to fit very slim, making them perfect for layering, and the shorter elastic sleeves will show off all that time you spent in the gym. As a result of the athletic history, most of them also have an elongated body that is meant for tucking in; thus, useful for a sharper ensemble. Nothing looks sloppier than an un-tucked polo that is too long. Additinoally, the structure of the collars tends to vary quite a bit, with some that are stiff and hold up well while others are soft and lay very flat. I recommend the more structure upright versions.
So why not resuscitate the polo with a fresh and classy approach? The first step is to chose a polo in a solid, dark or neutral tonal colour, meaning it will compiment rather than detract when paring with a jacket. The look in this article is based on layering a polo with a sport coat or blazer, which may be met with contempt by some menswear puritans, but I think it's better to think about the look as a polished take on "smart casual" rather than a relaxed version of business attire.
I chose a jacket with a softer more relaxed construction, as well as an easy going fabric like flannel in a bolder pattern, reducing the risk of that "country club dress code" look. As for the polo, I prefer a long sleeve when layering so that it works more like a shirt with some cuff showing and avoiding creating a crease in the jacket arm from where the end of the short sleeve polo would end. I finished my look with chinos (jeans work too) to form a clean line down to a sharp pair of suede single monk strap shoes, which anchors the whole look with sophistication but also a little twist.
This is the sort of ensemble that can really benefit from that little touch of added swagger that a trilby or fedora can give it. I do try and wear hats as much as I can, especially on bad hair days, but often find it can be one accessory too many. With a polo, sport coat and chinos, there isn’t much going on so the hat looks rather natural and uncontrived.
A final word of caution: don’t wear a shirt under a polo, and especially not a crew neck with the neck line showing.