Dan Ahwa: Are Polo Shirts Dorky? The Smart-Casual Wardrobe Staple Making A Subtle Return

By Dan Ahwa
The versatility of a polo shirt has seen an uptake in sales in 2023. Collage / Dan Ahwa

In the latest installment of Sign of the Times, fashion and creative director Dan Ahwa takes a closer look at one of the year’s most polarising wardrobe returns, the polo shirt, along with the best nine polo shirt options to shop right now.

If there’s anything we can ascertain from

There’s the discreet impact of Michelle Matland’s costume design for Succession and the proliferation of fashion hot-takes on TikTok with regard to Sofia Richie’s “old money” aesthetic. There’s also the trickle-down effect from last year’s reimagined take on preppy staples at Miu Miu, its line-up of knit vests, business shirts, and pleated skirts plucked straight out of The Official Preppy Handbook.

The Row spring/summer 2024
The Row spring/summer 2024

Although designers have revisited these preppy staples in a year that saw an uptake in sales for loafers and vests, the sometimes maligned polo shirt has made its own quiet revolution as a tidy-casual alternative to the formality of a business shirt and the casualness of a T-shirt.

It’s little wonder that a garment synonymous with affluent sportswear — golf, tennis, and of course polo — became a regular feature on Succession, albeit luxurious Loro Piana cashmere and silk blend versions that cost up to thousands of dollars.

The polo shirt today is emblematic of our need to dress for hybrid working lives, with luxury brands heeding the call to deliver their versions of the humble garment, a grown-up take on casualwear that’s proving to be the perfect tonic from years of pandering to the Gen-Z market with “ugly” dad sneakers and logo-heavy sweatshirts. With a focus on more refined separates, we’re already seeing knit polo options at Wales Bonner to more languid, boxy designs at The Row.

Earlier this year we saw Rihanna and Hailey Bieber both sporting the same blue and red striped Loewe polo shirt on different occasions; Riri rolling hers up into a crop top with jeans to show off her baby bump, and Bieber with jeans and another of-the-moment trend, an oversized leather bomber jacket.

Hailey Bieber wearing a Loewe polo shirt in March this year. Photo / Getty Images
Hailey Bieber wearing a Loewe polo shirt in March this year. Photo / Getty Images

So here’s a fashion prediction for 2024: expect to see more iterations of the humble polo shirt — and its older cousin, the old-school rugby jersey with its thick, cotton collars — reach its peak in 2024.

It’s there in Emerald’s Fennell’s Saltburn, as Jacob Elordi swans about in 2007 Oxford University wearing polo shirts and classic rugby jerseys with popped collars, and we’ll continue see it even more as luxury brands transition from years of trading off streetwear and dad sneakers to more refined sportswear classics such as the polo shirt.

But to understand the polo shirt’s complexity is to also acknowledge its bad press over the years. In 2020, Fred Perry’s black and yellow polo shirts were co-opted by the North American far-right, neo-fascist militant group Proud Boys, and the polo shirt quickly became synonymous with extreme right-wing ideology much to the dismay of Fred Perry, who halted sales of the black and yellow top in September that year.

But much like its Brit-pop hey-day when the likes of Damon Albarn from Blur would wear his with a certain boyish insouciance during the 90s, a polo shirt worn with a sense of irreverence is perhaps the best source of inspiration if you’re looking to add one into your wardrobe right now.

The last time I wore one was in 2005 — a slim-fit Polo Ralph Lauren shirt in tangerine, a popped collar teamed with a pair of bootleg jeans. While the jeans have steadily made a return in recent years, the polo shirt has been a little slow to the mark, however judging by what’s on the shop floor at the moment, the multiple variations of the polo shirt are not hard to find.

Damon Albarn's quintessential Fred Perry polo shirt, 1997.
Damon Albarn's quintessential Fred Perry polo shirt, 1997.

The first polo shirt I’d bought in 18 years was a classic cream polo shirt with a blue and red stripe at the collar from JW Anderson’s line at Uniqlo.

The simplicity of the polo shirt and its smart silhouette provided the perfect base for someone who needs to look professional some days but not wearing a shirt and tie. One way to invest in an updated polo shirt is to consider the cut. Boxy-shaped tops and T-shirts are an easy way to look contemporary, so consider a polo shirt with a looser silhouette that can fall easily over summer shorts or neatly tucked in with a little volume with a pair of dinner or business trousers.

Buttonless polo shirts are a great idea too when the weather heats up, especially when it comes with what’s known as a trophy neckline — a deep V-neck that has no buttons but bares just enough of a subtle hint of an erogenous zone that feels apt for when the weather heats up.

And if there’s one noughties hangover we can live without, it’s popping your collar. Just don’t. Unless you’re out on the green putting golf balls or on a yacht and shielding your nape from the sun, the popped-collar polo shirt is already ageing this mid-life wardrobe staple at least by another decade.

Try to avoid buying a polo shirt with a pocket at the chest too. They’re unnecessary and add bulk to something that’s already doing a lot of work.

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For every age, keep it simple with these fresh polo shirt options for your consideration (popped collar at your own peril).

A style that nods to mid-century polo shirts, this two-tone option is a perfect choice for semi-formal dress codes and summer workwear.

Made from 100 per cent compact spun BCI cotton, this tidy option from the knitwear stalwart is also available in white, blue and beige.

A softer take on a classic football jersey, this trophy neckline polo shirt option from the local favourite features original artwork knitted into the jersey and applied via embroidered patches.

If you must go with a long-sleeve option, this ribbed lurex option would be an ideal choice. Choose between this dusky pink hue or a tan option.

This relaxed, cropped polo features a trophy neckline and works well tucked inside a smart summer short suit or a pair of wide-legged trousers.

What’s great about this cashmere polo is the versatility of a teal hue that works across multiple skin tones and is a refreshing change from classic black. Again, we see the popularity of a trophy collar come through here, softening the neckline away from traditional polo shirt buttons.

Preppy staple Tommy Hilfiger has a range of great polo shirts on offer of course, but this nod to a classic Breton stripe top is perfect for a more streamlined look. Sophisticated and low-maintenance, wear this one to the office or brunch with ease.

If you’re after a polo shirt with a little retro finesse, this crochet option is ideal for any gender, and the perfect throw-on or cover-up post swim.

For a hit of colour, the Australian staple has a reliable mid-sleeve polo shirt with slightly retro-inspired styling, the perfect match for light-wash denim.

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