Today, it’s a fallback piece of trusty menswear but the original polo shirt was designed by French tennis pro René Lacoste in the 1920s, as an upgrade on the long-sleeved button-downs that contemporary tastes somehow thought appropriate for charging round a court. Lacoste disagreed, so capped the sleeves and crafted his shirts from knitted piqué cotton, for added breeziness. The makeover won him seven grand slams and envious glances across the net.
Racket hung up, Lacoste debuted his eponymous label, with a crocodile logo inspired by his on-court nickname. It became synonymous with the kind of sports where sweat and smartness are equally valued; the fabric keeps golfers and polo players cool on the turf, but the buttoned placket and collar let them step straight into the clubhouse.
Those characteristics endure, even if you’re now more likely to see polos in the crowd than on the court. But when you’re wearing yours to watch, not play, the best polo shirts are still breathable and cut slim. “It has become one of the most versatile items in a man’s wardrobe,” says Damien Paul, head of menswear at MatchesFashion. “I’ve seen more classic styles worn with a linen suit at a summer wedding, which is suitably formal, and then you have the likes of Givenchy whose graphic approach works well on a much younger guy off-duty.”
There are almost countless ways to wear a polo shirt. Because it sits in the sporty-smart sweet spot, it works to upgrade your weekend looks, or reduce the stuffiness of your formalwear. “Shorts, denim and chinos make for the best companions, but a polo shirt can be smartened up with a blazer or relaxed with a lightweight bomber jacket,” says Phill Tarling, a stylist that counts M&S and Top Gear among previous paychecks. “Just make sure the collar’s folded down, and save your favourite football polo jersey for match days only.”
That’s summer sorted. Merci, René.
Polo Ralph Lauren
The clue’s in the name, isn’t it? Ralph Lauren’s signature piece has been reimagined in countless ways over the years. Some styles bear the hallmarks and insignias of the sport that inspired the garment in the first place but many more are simply about can’t-be-beaten preppy fashion. Available in five fabrics and three fits, the brand also recently launched the Earth Polo, made out of recycled plastic bottles.
It’d be unfair to chart the best of the bunch without referencing the very man that started it all. Though while Lacoste has built a reputation on classic iterations, know that modern – and dare we say it, cooler – choices exist, with larger motifs or interesting patterns and prints.
Affordable, easy-wearing basics is what Uniqlo is all about, so of course the Japanese brand stocks great polos. There are dozens of designs, many with moisture wicking fabrics and technology designed to stop the tees from unravelling or losing their shape. The brand also stocks smarter polos in a fine merino wool for dressed-down suiting.
Tennis whites weren’t solely dominated by good old René. Some time after, British tennis player Fred Perry launched his own namesake label. Rather than classic court shapes however, the brand has evolved into something far more trend-led, adopted by mod fashion among others.
Best known for amazing T-shirts and amazing fabrics, Sunspel’s polo shirt offering is vast and wonderful. You can pick from Sea Island cotton, jersey blends, merino wool, waffle knits, towelling and more, but there are two things that unite them. They’re all luxurious to the the touch and come in a soft, flattering cut that will make every day feel like a day in the south of France.
Premium beachwear is what Orlebar Brown does better than pretty much anyone. Tailored but supremely comfortable, the brand’s polo shirts are designed for your down-time but they’re easily smart enough to wear to the office. Okay, maybe not the towelling ones. Expect rich colours, good options on the collar design and plenty of retro-modern designs.
Arguably the best place on the high street for preppy American classics, J.Crew’s polos come in a few shapes and many colours, but our favourites are the brand’s throwback designs. Look for boxy cuts, sun-faded colours and stripes straight out of the 4th July weekend.
Luxury LA brand James Perse makes some of the most decadent polo shirts on the planet, the softness and the price tags both likely to make your jaw drop. The vibe is easygoing East Coast living, which means a floaty fit and dark neutral colour palette.
If you thought polo shirts to be the sole preserve of sports brands, think again; Lanvin, the world’s oldest independent French fashion house, is just as artful. Though instead of breathable cotton piqués, the label’s polo shirts stick to its luxury roots with Italian wool and minimal stripe detailing.
Another purveyor of preppy fashion, Gant sells a mighty range of polo shirts and has done since 1949. The collection includes stripes, florals, contrast collars and a rainbow of colours. Look out for its Tech Prep shirts, made from a breathable wicking pique cotton.
Europe shouldn’t take all the credit. Tommy Hilfiger, king of Ivy League prep, launched his own take on the classic polo shirt, imbuing the Land Of The Free’s favourite shades within a traditional, flattering shape. The brand is doing throwback nineties styles better than anyone so start there if you’re browsing.
The polo shirt is a classic piece of menswear but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to trends. If you’re looking for something more directional that won’t empty the bank account, try River Island. Its polos lean into the prevailing menswear themes of the season – right now that means big stripes and 50s details like piping on the sleeves and collar.
Marks & Spencer
This British institution has one of the biggest collections of polo shirts on the high street. It’ll take you a while to look through it all but to navigate straight to the best bits, we recommend its fitted wool polos for smart-casual outfits and some retro block colour options with contrast piping on the sleeves. The prices are hard to beat, too.
Smart-casual doesn’t get much better on the high street than premium menswear hub Reiss. Fine fabrics, trendy touches like open colours and non-boring colours are all par for the course. Perfect casual office gear that flips straight into going-out clothes.
Available at Reiss, priced £95.
One of the most luxury fashion destinations in London, Dunhill doesn’t stop at fine leather goods and superior golf attire. Its polo collection is extensive with outrageously soft cottons and even silk options to be found. It does a good line in ’50s throwback options, too.