Forget any preconceived notions you have about polo shirts. The menswear staple has officially shaken off its associations with golf dads and Britpop-loving teens to deservedly reclaim its status as a reliable smart-casual go-to for just about any occasion. Scroll on for everything you need to know about this unassuming wardrobe hero – from its origins to the best men's polo shirts to buy in 2021.

The history of polo shirts

As its name suggests, the polo shirt – or a version of it – was originally invented for polo players in the late 1800s. John Brooks, an American haberdasher and grandson of Brooks Brothers founder Henry Sands Brooks, noticed on a trip to England that polo players were sewing buttons on their shirt collars to prevent the collars from flapping around during games. He took the idea home to the US and began producing shirts with button-down collars en masse.

It wasn't until the 1920s, however, that the polo shirt as we know it today was born, all thanks to the French tennis icon René Lacoste. Frustrated with the rigid codes of tennis wear, which required players to wear a heavy and uncomfortable long-sleeved button-up shirt, Lacoste began wearing a short sleeved shirt in a lightweight cotton pique – a soft, breathable and relaxed style that improved his freedom of movement and performance. Soon enough, he was approached by American manufacturer André Gillier to collaborate on the creation of the modern tennis shirt. In 1933, La Chemise Lacoste was founded, adopting the crocodile as its logo in a nod to Lacoste's nickname.

Over the decades, polo shirts became popularised off the court amongst sporty middle-class types – from British mods to American East Coast preppies and even presidents – President Dwight D. Eisenhower and President John F Kennedy were both big fans. In the late '60s, a young designer by the name of Ralph Lauren launched a brand called Polo. Emblazoned with a trademark polo player, the polo shirt became the uniform of America's leisure-loving elite.

Fast forward to today and practically every menswear brand has created its own version of the men's polo shirt, harnessing all manner of cuts, fabrics and patterns and elevating the garment beyond its sporty origins.

How to wear a polo shirt

Occupying that sweet spot between a collared shirt and a T-shirt, the polo shirt lends itself easily to being dressed up or down. Channel weekend ease and team it with shorts, denim or chinos, or smarten it up by layering it under a blazer and tucking it into high-waisted tailored trousers. Its lightweight construction and smart-casual appeal make it the ultimate holiday shirt, perfect for taking you from the pool to cocktail hour. Throw on a pair of espadrilles and slip into off-duty mode.

The best men's polo shirts to buy in 2021

Shon Mott Cotton Pique Polo

With its clean cut and fuss-free design, this 100% cotton polo shirt from Barcelona-based brand Shon Mott is guaranteed to be a fail-safe summer staple that you'll reach for time and again. Choose from white, deep blue or grey – easy-to-wear hues that you simply can't go wrong with.

Luca Faloni Fine Silk-Cashmere Polo

Made in Italy from a luxurious blend of cashmere and silk, this polo shirt from menswear maestro Luca Faloni is super-soft and ultra-lightweight, designed to drape beautifully over your body. Team it with chinos and loafers for an easy evening look.

Unrecorded Pique Polo Shirt

Amsterdam-based brand Unrecorded is renowned for its less-is-more approach to design. Its take on the polo shirt is characteristically understated, with a straight slim fit and organic cotton construction. Just like a crisp white T-shirt or classic chore jacket, it's a year-round wardrobe hero. We won't judge you for purchasing one in every colour.

Artknit Studios Merino Wool Polo

Trust Artknit Studios to create a polo as luxurious as this one. The Milanese knitwear brand has opted for an extra fine Australian merino wool that's warm yet breathable, ideal for all year-round. Wear it with tailored trousers and a smart blazer for en effortless dinner look.

Drake's Linen-Cotton Knitted Polo Shirt

For a subtle injection of retro style, look no further than this knitted linen and cotton polo from renowned London-based menswear brand Drake's. With ribbing at the sleeves and waist, it calls to mind the laidback elegance of the late 1950s. Lean into the old-school aesthetic and team it with high waisted trousers, a sleek leather belt and penny loafers.

WAHTS Finch Long Sleeve Merino Polo

Tailored to perfection, this buttonless polo from Dutch luxury sportswear label WAHTS is as clean cut as they come. It's crafted from extra fine Italian merino wool for a lightweight feel and ultimate longevity. The perfect layer for those tricky in-between months.

SIRPLUS Textured Knit Long Sleeve Polo

It's no surprise that this long sleeve polo shirt from SIRPLUS has become one of the British brand's bestsellers. Woven from 100% organic cotton, it boasts a relaxed fit and gorgeously textured open-knit waffle stitch. Wear it as it is or treat it as a lightweight jumper, thrown on over a T-shirt on cool summer evenings.

Norse Projects Leif Polo

Made from a breathable blend of linen and cotton, this polo shirt from Danish design powerhouse Norse Projects will take you effortlessly from beach to bar. A knitted, buttonless collar and ribbed hem and cuffs embody just the right amount of retro style.

ASKET Pique Polo

ASKET's take on the polo shirt is as pared-back as possible, boasting fuss-free details like a seamless French placket, tonal buttons and herringbone tape. Made from a super breathable yet durable mercerised organic Egyptian cotton knit, it's ideal for long summer days. What's more, it's fully traceable, with the origins, cost and impact of the shirt's production revealed in full.

Shop all men's polo shirts at OPUMO.

Read our ultimate guide to men's shirts to find your perfect style.