Polo shirts for men: What to know. When to wear

As you know, the polo shirt was invented by legendary explorer Marco Polo, who wore them during his 17 years in China.

OK. That’s not true. 

The polo shirt was invented by legendary fashion entrepreneur Ralph Lauren, who wore them during his 17 years in China.

OK. That’s not true either.
Ralph Lauren did name his first line of menswear “ Polo.”  But as far as we know, he’s never been to China. And Marco Polo wore hoodies, not polo shirts.

OK. That’s also a lie. We’ll stop now.

But therein lies the point. Polo shirts are so ubiquitous, so wildly popular that its seems like they should have some fascinating origin story to explain why guys like them so much.

And the truth is polo shirts do have a pretty interesting history.

Polo shirts are – or at least were – “tennis shirts.”

how polo shirts were invented-tennis shirts
Image by Stuart London

René Lacoste, who would win seven Grand Slam tournaments in his career, disliked the traditional long-sleeve shirts worn by tennis players. So Lacoste created a short-sleeved loosely-knit piqué cotton shirt that was longer in the back than in the front. He first wore one to the U.S. Open in 1926. A year later, he placed a little crocodile emblem on his shirts (the press had earlier given him the nickname “Crocodile.”)

In the meantime, polo players had begun wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a button-down collar (the idea was to prevent the collars from bouncing up and down as a player rode his horse.)

Fast forward a half century or so and a young designer named Ralph Lauren – who as far as we know has never been to China – started selling a tennis shirt that he called a polo shirt. And he put a little emblem of a polo player on a horse on the left breast where Lacoste had put his crocodile.

As the years have passed, the phrase “tennis shirt” has largely disappeared from common usage, whereas “polo shirt” has become the preferred term.

Polo shirts: Ralph Lauren vs. Lacoste
Image by InsideHook

How to wear a polo shirt

Odds are you will wear a polo shirt sometime in the next few days. Like we said earlier, polos are ubiquitous.

But are you wearing the right polo shirt? Does yours fit? Is the color right for you? And are you wearing it in a situation where perhaps a different shirt would have been a wiser choice?

Let’s consider the art of wearing a polo shirt.

Fabric Choices

Polos today come in a variety of fabrics, including the stiff, loosely knit cotton known as piqué that Lacoste favored. Golf shirts (another type of polo) tend to be made of polyesters.

In today’s era, loads of polos are made with high-end performance fabrics. These can be very comfortable and stylish, even if you’re more likely to perform in the office than on the tennis court of polo field.

Choosing the Right Fit

Polos were designed for guys who play sports. If you look like you have never done anything physical in your life, then polos are not for you. A polo shirt frees your body to move. It does not hide the sins of a slothful life.

On the other hand, polos can be somewhat forgiving. They are not designed to be so excessively tight and revealing that only the fittest guys can wear them. But don’t ask too much of a polo shirt. A polo pulled tight over a large belly is particularly unflattering. So too is a thin arm in a sleeve that is too wide.

Polo Shirt Colors

Polo shirts in different colors
Image by GQ

Polos come in every imaginable color. Seriously. There are far more shades of polos for you to choose from than there are colors of Oxfords, dress shirts or anything else.

Polos generally come in solid colors. But you can find them with stripes too (a sort of cross between a rugby shirt and a polo shirt.)

So feel free to experiment with colors you wouldn’t normally wear. A bright-colored polo can work well with dark chinos or jeans. The reverse is also true.

When to wear a polo shirt

Perhaps the reason that polos are so very popular these days is that they are considered perfectly appropriate attire in a wide variety of diverse activities.

Want to wear one to the office? If your place of employment is business casual, go for it. Planning that high-pressure first date with the person who has caught your eye? A polo may be just the thing to make you look stylish, but not too formal. Going to play golf. A polo is the standard.

What to wear with a polo

A blazer or sport coat on top of a polo is a nearly perfect, can’t-fail outfit for after-work get togethers. A bomber jacket on top of a polo makes for a stylish weekend look.

Fancy and expensive watches tend to look a little silly with a polo shirt. Instead select something more sporty for your wrist.

polo shirt styling
Image by Hockerty

Care and Maintenance

Depending on the fabric, the laundry rules for a polo will vary. Always – always – read the laundry instructions.

Avoid hanging a polo on a coat hanger, particularly a metal one. Instead, fold your polos careful and keep them in a drawer.


The polo shirt is among the most versatile items in your wardrobe. Take advantage of that. Wear them often and in any of the multiple settings in which they are appropriate.

And, if you are lucky, you can wear one when following in the footsteps of legendary explorer Marco Polo, who wore one when he was the first man to walk on the moon.

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