Polo: The classic shirt for any man

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Consider the polo shirt -- that classic pullover with short sleeves, button placket and attached collar ideal for an afternoon of golf, dress-down day at the office or a gift for Dad.

Many men view them as a fashion must-have, with 87.5 percent dubbing the polo a man's version of the little black dress, according to a Lands' End survey of more than 2,000 members of Golf Digest's database.

"It is an item that is considered to be a classic and timeless style" with a rich history in menswear, said trend expert and author Tom Julian, owner of the brand consulting company Tom Julian Group in New York City.

Local shops for polos

A sampling of polo shirts carried by local menswear shops:

• John Varvatos, Psycho Bunny, Diesel and Relwen at Charles Spiegel for Men, Squirrel Hill; www.charlesspiegel.com or 412-421-9311.

• Tommy Bahama, Cutter & Buck and Victorinox Swiss Army at Heinz Healey's, Downtown; 412-281-5115. Purchase any two items in the store and get 20 percent off the second until Sunday.

• David Leadbetter for JoS. A. Bank at Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, Cranberry, Downtown, Monroeville, Mt. Lebanon, Ross Park and Robinson; www.josbank.com. Today only, storewide 50 percent off sale. Polos and executive dress shirts on sale for $25; executive gabardine dress pants, $59.

• Lacoste, Peter Millar, Robert Talbott and Zegna at Larrimor's, Downtown and Mt. Lebanon; www.larrimors.com. Purchase any two sports shirts made in Italy for $225 (regularly $175 each).

• Ted Baker, GANT by Michael Bastian, Woolrich, Trovata and Z Zegna at Moda Pittsburgh, Shadyside; www.modapittsburgh.com or 412-681-8640.

• Southern Tide at Kountz & Rider, Downtown; 412-642-6600.

There are various stories about how polo shirts came to be, but it's generally accepted that American and English athletes sported them on the polo field by the early 1900s. The shirts' colors and patterns denoted team membership. At first, they were made of knitted wool, Mr. Julian said, but later they were designed in more comfortable, breathable fabrics such as cotton and other fiber blends. Technological innovations helped to refine the fabrics used for polo shirts, said John Franke, who has taught fashion merchandising for more than 30 years at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

Grand Slam French tennis champion Rene Lacoste helped the shirt cross over from polo to tennis by lengthening its tail. Industrial production of the first Lacoste polos began in the early 1930s, according to the company's website. Once the media started branding Mr. Lacoste as "The Crocodile," he emblazoned a reptile on the shirt.

In the 1940s, Lacoste's production was halted by World War II but resumed in France in 1946. The company initiated exports to the United States in the early 1950s.

As people moved from the farm and into factories, they found themselves seeking something to do -- and wear -- during leisure time after work and on weekends. The polo shirt evolved from something men wore to play sports to apparel they lounged in while watching them.

As the 20th century progressed, the shirt became popular in other sports, such as golf, and more designers pitched adaptations, with styles by Brooks Brothers, Le Tigre and Ralph Lauren some of the most prominent.

"Ralph brought it into a marketing scenario when he launched his company," Mr. Julian said. Although Mr. Lauren's Polo line sells more than just the namesake shirts, the brand embraces the status of a life of leisure and luxury that the polo shirt traditionally has represented, Mr. Franke said.

Today, polo shirts continue to maintain their spots in the closet alongside other menswear essentials such as the oxford dress shirt and navy blazer. Their longevity can be in part attributed to their versatility, because they can be paired with other sportswear for playing golf or tennis or dressed up with khakis for a date or business event. It also became in the early 1990s a more acceptable option for work attire as companies started observing casual Fridays.

Polo shirts have become a go-to gift, largely because of their easy sizing. People may not know their father's neck size or sleeve length, but they probably can guess if he wears a small, medium or large. They also are in some ways unique for their ability to cross cultural, financial and societal divides.

"They're like the every man's shirt, whether you're getting them at Barneys New York for $200 made out of silk or you're getting them at Kmart for $12.99 made out of cotton," Mr. Franke said. "They're everywhere."

Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com .


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