There’s a reason why classics are classics – they have enduring appeal because they are practical, versatile, and stylish. One of these classics is the polo shirt. Short sleeve polos have been popular for 100 years. They are comfortable, breathable, and casual yet dressy enough for most occasions. Well fitting polos can go from business casual to the beach and everywhere in-between, be worn by themselves, or used as a bottom layer, and are one of the foundational pieces of every wardrobe.
What makes a polo a polo?
Originally polos were short-sleeved shirts, although you can also find long-sleeved versions today. They can be made from a variety of fabrics such as silk, polyester, or nylon, but the original and our favorite is still cotton; it gives you the comfort and breathability you want, and looks good without wrinkling. Polos have a 2 or 3 button placket instead of buttoning all the way down the shirt. Sleeves can have a hemmed or ribbed cuff and a hemmed (not ribbed) bottom.
At Peter Manning you have a choice of two cotton fabrics and polo styles. First, you have the original polo, our James Polo Shirt that’s made from pique Pima cotton (with a hint of elastane for shape retention and stretch), ribbed collar and cuff, and a 2-button placket. Our polos are mostly solids, although some of our James Polo Shirts have a thin double contrasting stripe (or tipping) along the collar & cuff ribbing. Pique is a textured or mesh weave which makes the cotton extremely breathable even though it’s heavier than many cotton knits. Other advantages to a pique cotton is that it won’t show sweat and is extremely durable.
Our Pocket Polo is 100% Pima cotton in a jersey or flat weave. Our classic colors come with a 3-button placket, and our seasonal colors have a 2-button placket. These polos have a chest pocket and a self-fabric collar and hemmed sleeve.
You may be wondering why we offer two variations of polos. The James Polo may be considered more sporty and casual, while the fabric and styling of the Pocket Polo more closely resembles a dress shirt. Both can be styled in a number of different ways and there is a place for both in every wardrobe. Which you choose to wear is really a matter of personal preference.
The Proper Fit
The most important element of looking good in a polo shirt is the fit. Peter Manning Polos are proportionally designed to fit the shorter man. (For help in finding your size, use the Peter Manning Proprietary Size System and size calculator.) Ill-fitting polos make you look wide, dumpy, and sloppy, rather than stylish.
The measurements to watch out for include:
- Sleeve length – Short-sleeves should hit the middle of your bicep or half-way between your shoulder and elbow. Don’t wear it any longer than 2/3 of the way down your upper arm. Long-sleeved polos should hit your wrist. Longer than these lengths will make you look like you're wearing someone else’s shirts. It’s not easy to hem ribbed cuffs so purchasing a shirt that is proportionally sized is imperative. It’s possible to shorten polos with hemmed shirt sleeves, although special machinery would be necessary to make it look right. This is the advantage to buying your polos from Peter Manning. Your shirts come with the proper sleeve length. Width-wise, the sleeve should be loose enough to slip a finger or two between your shirt and skin - although if you work out heavily this may not be possible.
- Shirt length - The other primary measurement to look for is the overall length. Polo shirts can be worn out or tucked in so the bottom hem of the shirt should be long enough to tuck in, but not be bulky. They shouldn’t hang further than the middle of your back pockets when worn untucked. Any longer and it will make your legs, and overall height look shorter. You also don’t want your shirt to hit at or above your waist. Not only won’t you be able to tuck it in, but it will look like it’s too small for you or shrunk up. Peter Manning shirt lengths run from 24 ½” to 27 ½”. For comparison-sake, Ralph Lauren polo shirts in size XS have a body length of 28” and range up to 33.5” for larger sizes.
- Shirt width - Polos aren’t meant to be either baggy or skin-tight. You should be able to pinch an inch or two on the sides. The fabric should skim over your body, not hug it too snuggly. Depending on your physique, it might fit a bit tighter in the chest, however, you don’t want them to flare out at the bottom. For this reason, most polos are made straight or only slightly tapered from the armholes to the hem.
One of things you’ll notice about most polo hems is that the back of the shirt will be up to 1” longer than the front of the shirt, often with a shallow vent between the two. This harkens back to the beginning of the polo shirt as a purely athletic garment (see the history below). With a longer back the wearer can be sure that the shirt will stay tucked in, even with rigorous activity.
One detail that you’ll appreciate about Peter Manning polos is that there is no collar label to irritate your neck. Our soft Pima cotton is all you’ll feel since our labeling is printed on the shirt.
Styling your polo
Yes, polos are casual, but dressy enough to be worn to work. The collar makes them a dressier choice than t-shirts, so they are a more versatile wardrobe option. There aren’t many shirts that look as good with shorts and jeans as they do with khakis, chinos, and even dress pants. If you want a more finished look, add a light sweater, vest, or even a sport coat. The collar lets you substitute a polo for a dress shirt without feeling as confined as you would in a woven button-up.
If you are using your polo as part of a business casual style, the Pocket Polo may be your first choice. It’s less bulky and more closely resembles the look of a dress shirt. It will also fit better under a sport coat because the fabric is thinner. Yes, you can wear a James Polo, but pique is a bit bulkier and the ribbed collar is a bit more casual. (Note: unstructured sport coats are more appropriate with a polo than very structured jackets. Peter Manning linen, cotton, or seersucker jackets are a great option.)
While polos are extremely versatile with just about everything, there are a few don’ts that you want to pay attention to:
- Your polo should be the bottom layer so don’t wear a t-shirt underneath or even a second polo. That may have been a fad during the heyday of the preppy style in the 80’s, but looks dated today. If you feel the need to wear an undershirt, make sure that none of it shows outside of the polo. Better yet, don’t wear anything underneath. It merely adds bulk and wrinkles.
- Be thoughtful about popping your collar up. This, again, is a throw-back to the 80’s. The collars, especially ribbed collars, were originally designed to be able to stay popped because this served the purpose of shading athlete’s necks from sunburn.
- Logo’d polos are iconic (see history section for an explanation), but if you ever wear a polo with a logo, make sure that it’s subtle.
- The biggest don’t is wearing a polo that doesn’t fit correctly. Make sure the hem and sleeve lengths and width are all appropriate for your height.
Polos are so versatile that you’ll find people wearing them to work, out to dinner, and to the beach. It’s been a favorite style of athletes and celebrities. You’ll find historic photos of Sean Connery, Dean Martin, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, James Dean, Sidney Poitier, Pelé, and Elvis wearing polos. It’s a style that people of all heights and shapes can wear. Just about every modern celebrity has been photographed in a polo, both young and old, short and tall.
There’s a place in every wardrobe for foundational colors such as white, black, navy, and gray. There’s also a place for brights and pastels. Polos also often come in stripes and prints. The best patterns for many men are thinner horizontal or vertical stripes and smaller prints. If patterns or stripes are too bold or wide may cut the body in two. Don’t be afraid of color or the right stripes and prints - they add interest and a bright spot to your outfit.
The origins of the polo shirt and how it got its name
The historically traditional shirt worn for polo playing was actually a woven cotton button-down shirt. They were originally worn by Indian polo players in the late 1800’s. They added buttons to the collar points to prevent them from flying into their face during the game. British soldiers adopted the fashion for polo matches and brought it back to England. The founder of Brooks Brothers saw the style on a visit and brought it to the U.S. and created “The Original Button-Down Polo Shirt” in 1896. The same shirt is still being sold today.
The very first modern polo shirt was designed and worn by John René Lacoste, a French tennis star, in the 1926 U.S. Open. Prior to this, the standard tennis outfit consisted of a long sleeve button down woven shirt (appropriated from polo players), white flannel pants and possibly a white vest and tie. This is hardly what we would consider athletic wear today, but was the standard for tennis “whites”. Lacoste’s version was a short-sleeved cotton pique with a 3-button placket…in white, of course. It afforded him greater maneuverability and was much cooler. By eliminating the collar buttons, the collar could be turned up to prevent sunburn on the wearer’s neck.
Lacoste started a company that sold his shirts toward the end of his competitive career. His nickname was “the crocodile” because of his aggressive style of play. He added a crocodile emblem on the chest as his logo. Not only was he the first athlete to have his own brand of clothing, but this is the first instance of a piece of clothing having a visible logo on it. His company, Izod, is still selling these shirts today.
Fred Perry, another tennis player, started his own clothing company in 1954 but decided to embroider his logo (a laurel wreath) rather than glue the logo emblem on.
This doesn’t really explain how the modern “polo” is not universally known as a “tennis” shirt. There are 2 explanations that may resolve this question. First, the style was admired by British polo players and appropriated because it was cooler and allowed greater freedom of movement so it became part of the polo culture.
The basic shirt style has also been adopted by golf players and became very popular after President Eisenhower was photographed playing golf in one. The golf shirt style is most similar to the Peter Manning Polo shirts in knit and collar, but golf shirts are generally polyester or a poly/cotton blend for maximum moisture wicking ability (though less breathable). Hems on golf shirts are straight across rather than multi-level.
The next big surge in the polo shirt story is when Ralph Lauren named his company Polo by Ralph Lauren, to evoke the cache of royalty and luxury for his clothing line. He also wanted to produce clothes that would naturally age rather than stay new-looking, as popular polyester clothing did. His logo is an embroidered polo player. Even though his company was founded in 1969, it wasn’t until 1972 that he introduced his all cotton pique polo shirts in 24 colors. His marketing slogan was “it gets better with age”.
The polo shirt really hasn’t changed substantially since its inception. It’s so practical that numerous sports (tennis, golf, and polo) have all adopted it as the standard for their sport. Its popularity has stretched far beyond sports to become the standard for casual dress.
As with every piece of clothing, the most important consideration is fit. The most luxurious and expensive item will look bad if it doesn’t fit properly. Conversely, if something fits correctly, you’ll look good. At Peter Manning you’ll not only get quality Pima cotton and fine construction, but most importantly, you’ll get a proportionally sized polo that’s sure to become one of your best-loved clothing staples.