Part of the difficulty with truly casual garments is that they are worn for active pursuits and laundered accordingly. One’s general shape might remain the same, but a favorite pair of wash-and-wear beach slacks might, one day, and for no particular reason, just not fit well enough to make the coming season. Where tailored clothing molds to the figure, casual garments tend to morph away from one’s shape with time.
The most frustrating example is the polo shirt. I have never bought a new one that fits perfectly from the start. Indeed, if it did, I would likely return it to the rack for fear of shrinkage. I expect to wear my polos for real activity (zip-lining above the jungle canopy, and/or, squash). Given this sort of use, and the necessary laundering, most polos become handkerchiefs by the end of a single season.
This is a pity, as the polo shirt, when good, sits alongside the tuxedo in terms of masculine style. Bad ones—like poor tuxedos—can be clownish. But a well-fitting, properly detailed polo is a style magnifier, conferring a sporting élan to its wearer—a clear message of action and propriety. But it must be worn in the spirit of real active-wear to deliver its charm. If you get: “your t-shirt has a collar,” congratulations, you are doing it correctly.
The details count enormously, though. Cotton jersey makes particularly poor polos; the collars wrinkle and collapse and the effect becomes more polo-shaped-t-shirt than anything else after only a few outings. The addition of silk, modal or linen can improve body, but the moment the results need dry-cleaning they are, in my book, disqualified. My preference is for finely woven cotton pique for its ability to breathe, resist wrinkles and, when mated to ribbed collars and sleeve bands, retain a certain crispness throughout its life. The seams should be durably stitched, and the armscyes must be high and curved for comfort during movement. I like the simplicity of two buttons at the neck; these permit two settings—lunch, and aperitifs.
Speaking of styling the polo, how and where it should be worn is a matter of vehement debate. For me a polo is strictly sportswear, like a bathing suit or a pair of plimsolls. In the US, however, perhaps helped along by the corporate aesthetic and, of course, golf, the polo has somehow ascended the formality scale. Mostly it’s found uncomfortably jockeying about the tortured business casual category, but I must admit, I’m occasionally drawn to the idea of an unstructured jacket worn over a polo. This is the domain of the expert though—the villainous yacht-owner or the swarthy seductor. The safer rule is far simpler: if sports are in the immediate past or future, a good polo will do nicely.