Ever since unruly tennis legend Rene Lacoste cut off the forearm sleeves on his button-down shirt to get an edge on court, the tennis shirt (later to be known as the polo shirt) has been one of the most popular garments in the menswear wardrobe. When we think of the polo we might cast our mind to the pique cotton options sold by Lacoste and Ralph Lauren, colour blocked and still essentially grounded in their sporty origins with a mesh finish to wick away the sweat.
But recently designers have championed new ways to wear polo shirts, including a reassessment of textured styles. Your dad probably wore a knitted polo shirt in the 1970s and his dad before him in the 1950s. It seems to jump generations, the 1990s were surely too busy jumping around in cargo pants. Now it’s not thought of as a stuffy heirloom from a bygone era but rather as one of the easiest ways to bring timeless elegance to your outfit.
The knitted polo is hard to define – most modern polo shirts are made out of a cotton knit anyway but for the most part it will have loosely ribbed sleeves and hem, soft, three-buttoned plackets (or no buttons at all) that fly out wider than your ordinary polo shirt, a taper to the waist and a cut higher than a regular polo just above the waistband of your trousers. The fabric will cling a little to your upper body and have a markedly different feel – soft and cushy as opposed to the hard wearing pique.
It might look a little like something your gran could conjure up with her knitting needles (menswear designer of the year 2018 goes to nana). If it’s something you could imagine Alain Delon or Dickie Greenleaf in then you’re on the right tracks. And that should be all the proof you need of its timeless good looks.
Alain Delon, The Girl On A Motorcycle, 1968
How To Style It
“Knitted polos are great for event dressing,” says Chris Hobbs, mens fashion editor at Matchesfashion.com. “I’m not really a full suit and tie kinda guy but if the occasion calls for a blazer then I’d most likely layer a knitted polo underneath.
“Dunhill’s contrast-placket versions have a 1960s vibe in two colourways that are very much in my palette, while Berluti’s have a tailored fit to them made from 100 per cent silk that they style on the runway with cropped trousers. If the summer continues way into September then I’d be quite happy tucking one of them into shorts for the office too.”
Tucking into chino shorts lends the knitted polo the air of Armie Hammer in Call Me By Your Name, but like Armie make sure to opt for a neutral beige so the shirt can really stand out. The deep V of the collar and the high cut of the sleeves on some options also make them a flattering shape for those with a toned upper body (the Rock has been seen rocking the style recently).
Wear with slim tapered or pleated trousers to keep the silhouette trim or floaty wide legs to tap into that 1950s Hollywood chilling on the lot vibe, with a luxe suede jacket over the top as we move into the chillier months.
The Best Brands For Knitted Polo Shirts
British premium retailer Reiss exists in a world that is ripe for the knitted polo, a world where timeless elegance rules menswear. Its stylish fits are far more flattering than its high-street counterparts although that’s also reflected on the price tag. Minimalist in colour, the knitted polos in Reiss come with varying details from zip openings to geometric textures.
High street fashion behemoth River Island excels at covering all the style bases from streetwear to affordable tailoring. So while the textured knit polo isn’t its speciality it offers enough of the style for it to be worth a gander. Enter the collection with the grey cable knit option with a tight stretchy fit and fabric that will cling to those well-earned gains from the gym.
Another bastion of fast fashion, Zara has quickly taken to the 1950s knitted polo style making it a key part of its polo shirt offering. Its textured options have a melange finish adding some texture to the usually colour blocked polo, while its sweater version comes in a range of colours and a slimming striped jacquard pattern.
Dunhill started life at the beginning of the 20th century as the go-to destination for motor car accessories (it did a fine-line in driving goggles). Steeped in this vintage tradition but repackaged for the contemporary gentleman, its polo shirts come in silk and with chunky long contrasting plackets, which more closely evoke the 1970s than anything 20 or 80 years prior.
Founded in the 1960s, Ben Sherman along with Fred Perry became a symbol of the era’s teddy boy and mod styles. Like today’s Instagram influencers, both subcultures dressed to impress when out on the town, and the brand continues to create pieces that evoke the time’s smart informality. Its knitted polos tap into this with bold jacquard patterns that pop out behind a natty neutral coloured blazer.
It would be rude to have one without the other and the polo is arguably even more integral to the Fred Perry brand than Ben Sherman, its famous founder having essentially popularised the style in the UK. Regularly reaching back into its archive, Fred Perry has returned to the knitted polos it created in the 1960s with a far less sporty feel than modern piques and most often in its favoured maroon hue.
Premium independent menswear maker
Based in the seaside city of Brighton, the garments from Far Afield are as sunny as British menswear gets. Nestled in the knitwear section of its site, the knitted polos are bold and breezy with contrasting vertical stripes along with a long-sleeved polo shirt featuring a heavy cotton-crepe yarn that couldn’t be more ‘nouvelle vague’ if it had a half-smoked cigarette dangling from its pursed lips.
King & Tuckfield
While most of the brands on this list are inspired by mid-century style – the 1950s resurgence doesn’t look like it will be abating anytime soon – King & Tuckfield really ran with the look from its very beginnings. With not too much in the way of trimmings bar an elegantly simple contrasting trim on the collar, its textured polo focuses on a subtle ribbed pattern and the luxurious feel of the 100 per cent merino wool.
Coming in all silky smooth through the side door is minimalist Scandi brand Cos which takes the high fashion-for-the-masses-manifesto of its parent company H&M and add a sprinkle more premium quality into the mix. Pick up a silk-cotton blend fine-knit polo shirt to slip stylishly into your work wardrobe or try an open-collar knit shirt for when buttons are just not needed.
Not as obvious a high street destination as its rivals Topman and Zara, Mango offers clean-cut, stylish wares for the man who doesn’t want to chuck out his whole wardrobe when the year has passed. Its knitted polos come in unobtrusive shades with textured stripes reminding us of something you might spot Cary Grant wearing at the beach club.
Alright, your mum might shop at Next, but that’s no reason to turn your nose up at the high street giant, so next time she pops in one of its stores make sure she nabs you one of its knitted polos while she’s there. In 100 per cent cotton and a textured melange effect, it has really nailed all the quality and 1950s design you’d want from the style.
Who knew Italians could make clothes? Alright, sarcasm doesn’t translate well online but the quality design and craftsmanship that goes into a Canali knitted polo is something we can all see plain and clear. With a geometric check design panel on the front, it bridges the gap between 1950s style and the versions from the 1970s.
We’re cheating a little bit with this one, but it would break our heart not to include the legendary French clothier. While the pique polo is the modern go-to for Lacoste and its updated style no-longer evoking the textured 1950s, it does offer the throwback Parisian style with its clean and elegant silhouette looking ace as a replacement for a button-down under a blazer. It uses the 1930s era of its founder as the key touchstone.
Again the iconic Ralph Lauren polo doesn’t quite fit into our idea of the knitted polo but Ralph would get mad if the croc was in and he wasn’t. Ralph Lauren does offer some polo shirts that fit into the era in question though, including long-sleeved jumpers that have the contrast tipping and wide opening placket you’d expect in a knit.