I am not sure anyone knows exactly how or why the knit shirt that everybody on earth owns at least ten of came to be called the polo shirt. The one with the knit collar, a couple of buttons and short sleeves. When I was a kid it was called a tennis shirt, regardless of color or design. It doesn't look like what polo players wear.
Maybe it was by association with Mr. Lauren’s label, for despite his manifest talents Lauren struggled in business for years until he embroidered his polo player logo on the chest of an otherwise unremarkable knit shirt. Izod/LaCoste, the original, by then had lost its luster, and the Polo/Ralph Lauren polo shirt sold like funnel cakes at a county fair.
Fifty years later we call any knitted top, whether long sleeved or short, cotton or wool or even the new sports-techno-blends, solid or striped, virtually anything that looks like that, a polo. In Italian it’s called il polo, in French le Polo.
The versatility and functionality of this garment make it a staple of everybody’s wardrobe. Under a sport jacket or even a suit it can be an elegant-sporty look, more youthful and carefree than the shirt-and-tie, definitely Level 3. With dress trousers and a nice belt and shoes, particularly in its long-sleeved version, is as at home in the new Polo Bar as at a dinner party in Sheboygan.
There is great variety in this; too much, in fact. Suffice it to say that piqué and interlock knits, commonly knitted of a variety of cotton known as Pima, have a heft and a softness that makes them more comfortable, but, like their oxford button-down cousin, less formal looking and less likely to look dressy after a few launderings. The Mercerizing process, by which cotton yarn is made harder and stronger, results in a more formal looking shirt, easier to care for but less comfy. Other types of cotton knits, like John Smedley’s 32 gauge Sea Island and some Italian Pimas, are quite comfortable and presentably dressy, if properly cared for.
The knit shirt, just because of the nature of the fabric, tends quickly to lose its color and shape. Mrs. America wants to wash out the chocolate ice cream her husband dripped on his shirt, and the manufacturer want to sell eighty million shirts a year, and these two criteria make everybody want to say you can wash and dry them like your Budweiser T-shirt. The result is that after three such washings what started out a pristine golf shirt is now fit only for wash-the-dog use.
Noteworthy also in regard to knit shirts is that the old-fashioned method of manufacturing, known as “full-fashioning” makes a big difference in how they fit and feel. The best knits are fully-fashioned, meaning that the entire garment is knitted together, the way Granma used to do. The sleeves and the collar of the garment are fashioned together by knitting, rather than by cutting the material and sewing it. There are no seams, nothing to pucker or bump. Less expensive “cut-and-sewn” knits are stitched together – sleeves, collar and shoulders attached from separate pieces, creating at best an approximation of fit. Full-fashioned knits conform to the neck and shoulders with no seams, just the little tell-tale fashioning marks, if you know what to look for. And if you do, you’ll know that any full-fashioned knit shirt deserves to be cold water washed and line dried and cool-ironed. If you bought a Ferrari would you bring it to the Jiffy Lube? Cut and sewn knits are expendable. If you have bought a fully-fashioned knit shirt, you’ll want to keep it looking like new.
A final tip on buying any knit shirt is this: Make sure it fits. Yes, boys. I’m sorry, but this means you have to try it on. Because most of the American brands could do double duty as car-covers and the Italian ones are tiny. Even if the body fits you the neck is sometimes too wide, so that it opens around your shoulders, or too small, the sleeves too long (or too short.)
Another head-scratch-inducing sociological phenomenon is the average guy’s reluctance to try anything on before buying it. This may be akin to not wanting to stop and ask for directions, but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.