When it comes to clothing, there is nothing the Gentleman looks forward to more than the beginning of polo shirt weather. When I lived in California, the polo shirt was a year-round mainstay of my casual wardrobe. For much of the rest of the country, however, this lightweight, vibrantly colored article of clothing can only be enjoyed for about half of the year. As it finally begins to warm up, I want to devote this article to the polo shirt, its history and a couple of polo shirt makers that you may not already know.
“Polo shirt” was first used to describe something that we might today call a button-down dress shirt. Like much of men’s style, this version of the polo shirt was invented by Brooks Brothers in the late-19th century after the owner of the store observed men in Britain wearing button-down collars while playing polo to keep the wind from blowing their collars around while on horseback.
The version of the polo shirt that we know and love today got its start in tennis, not polo. In the 1920s, tennis player Renė Lacoste invented his own type of shirt to wear on the court. It featured lightly woven piqué cotton, a buttoned placket (the part of the shirt that fastens at the top of your chest), a flat collar and short sleeves. He emblazoned the front of the shirt with his trademark symbol, the crocodile. A few years later, Lacoste started his own eponymous clothing company selling the Lacoste tennis shirt, complete with the crocodile logo on the chest. By the 1950s, polo players began wearing tennis shirts in the style of Lacoste’s and referring to them as polo shirts, and the name stuck.
Photo Credit: Polocontacts.com
Today, the two most popular manufacturers of the polo shirt are Lacoste and Ralph Lauren. Contrary to what you may expect, Ralph is a relative newcomer to the polo scene who didn’t debut his polo shirt until the 1970s. The popularity of these two companies is partly due to the success of their branding with recognizable logos on the breasts of their shirts: Lacoste with its crocodile and Ralph Lauren with its mounted polo player. They are also exceptionally well-fitting polos, although I prefer Lacoste over Ralph Lauren for fit and color selection. However, at a retail price point of $75 for Ralph Lauren and $80 for Lacoste, these polo shirts do not run cheap. If you decide to go with one of these favorite polo shirt makers, look for the frequent end of season sales when prices dip down to a more reasonable $50.
Photo Credit: Mens Style Revival
Of course, there are many more polo shirts out there other than Lacoste and Ralph Lauren. There are a lot of smaller or lesser known companies that make excellent polo shirts, many with unique chest logos that are sure to spark conversation. Here are two of my favorites:
The Original Penguin: Penguin is an old school brand from the 1950s that was almost forgotten in the vaults of fashion history. It was once a favorite clothing label of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, but by the time Richard Nixon began sporting Penguin shirts on the golf course, the label was thought to be hopelessly square. It was saved from obscurity during the early 2000s with a slick new ad campaign and improved TV presence, in particular by Seth Cohen on The OC who frequently donned their shirts. Penguin makes a great slim fit polo shirt featuring lots of retro details like contrasting piping around the collar and cuffs, breast pockest and metal buttons. They have a markedly more hip presentation than the typical polo shirt and can boast very reasonable prices. Their frequent sales bring their shirts into the $40-$50 range or less.
Photo Credit: Perlis.com
Perlis: Perlis is a local New Orleans clothing store that produces the Crawfish polo. A crawfish, for the uninitiated, is a small, red freshwater creature about the size of a shrimp but with the flavor of a lobster. Eating huge amounts of crawfish at an outdoor crawfish boil is a New Orleans tradition, so it’s no surprise that this little creature became the symbol of Perlis’ line of polo shirts. As a current New Orleans resident, I had to give the Perlis Crawfish polo a try. It’s one of those local niche brands that allows one to show off a bit of Southern flair while supporting a great independent store that has been doing its own thing for decades. Perlis Crawfish polos come in a variety of pastel colors like Lacoste, but feature horn buttons and a much wider cut than the typical polo. If you decide to get one, definitely go down one size from what you normally wear. A final plus: Perlis polos are always sold for $45, a great deal.
Polo shirts are perfect for any casual spring or summer outing. If you’ve got a favorite polo shirt maker that you think I should know about, feel free to email us (cubiclechic (at) gmail (dot) com) and the Gentleman will feature it in a future article.
Next Tuesday: the Gentleman spends some time summering with Chuck Bass, one of this favorite style icons.