As with no other fashion idiom, sportswear is a wholly American invention. Call it our perennial preoccupation with practicality or a long-abiding contention that clothing and comfort need not be mutually exclusive, sportswear is synonymous with American style. Over the last century or two, sports have had a tremendous influence on fashion, particularly in England and America, where proving one's meddle, whether on a lush fairway or a natural clay court, is a matter of personal, if not national, pride.
The polo shirt was specifically designed early in this century for aristocratic men who played the vigorous, if dangerous game of polo for which the garment is named. The earliest versions of the polo, according to "Esquire's Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Men's Fashions," were pullovers made of knitted wool jersey that featured short sleeves and a turned down collar, an altogether comfortable shirt that afforded the mallet-wielding athletes greater arm movement than the heavy woven shirts they always wore.
Once the polo shirt was seen as satisfying the requirements of the sport for which it was invented, it began to take on its own fashion life, with newer adaptation in styling. color and fabric. And its functional, if not flattering, appeal was not lost on sportswear designers in general.
By the early 1930's, men's golf and tennis wear companies adapted the polo shirt for their respective sports. For tennis, the shirt was executed in pure white, in a lightweight cotton mesh, while for golf, color was added along with slightly longer sleeves. To be sure, it is in the lexicon of golf apparel that the polo has ascended to a lofty fashion perch, a position that won't soon be usurped by any other garment.
Fashionable golf polos today are made of myriad styles, fabrics, colors, textures and even prints: satiny Sea Island cotton or cotton and silk blend jersey; cotton or lamb's wool interlock; pure cashmere or silk and even blends of silk, wool and cashmere. For dressier occasions, and when a slight chill is in the air, the long sleeved versions are a perfect choice, whether one is playing a round or just visiting the club for dinner. Indeed, so ubiquitous has the polo become in men's fashion that many are often worn under suits for a look that blurs the distinction between sportswear and tailored clothing.
From Giorgio Armani to Ermenegildo Zegna, every Italian fashion company worth its lire has created a version of the polo. Stateside, household designer names like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein have built reputations, if not empires, on the strength of their polo shirts, many of which are from newly created golf lines.
It is not without a certain irony that a specialized item of apparel, originally designed out of necessity for the sport of kings, has evolved into the most popular sport shirt among the masses in the history of fashion. But be forewarned: as flattering as a well-styled polo shirt might be, don’t count on it to improve your golf swing any time soon.