The Elephant In The Room: Polo Shirts & Khakis

A conversation about the style combo some men love and others love to hate

Brian Sacawa: I didn’t think a month-long examination of business casual would be complete without bringing up – and addressing – the topic of the polo shirt and khaki pants combination. It is so ubiquitous that I’d even venture to say that it has become a uniform of sorts for a certain segment of American men.

But it’s a combo that, while universally embraced by many, is just as universally reviled by others. What do you think is going on here?

Adam Lehman: I think you’re right, it certainly has become a uniform for a certain segment, but I don’t think that tends to be a fashion or style-oriented segment. Rather, I think it’s become the go-to for guys who have to adhere to a dress code but don’t like dressing formally.

Like, it’s for the business casual dude who doesn’t want to wear a dress shirt or tie on the job, but can’t get away with jeans and a tee. Now, that’s not to say it can’t be stylish.

Brian: Right. Not to focus on the negative, but, hey, let’s start by focusing on, um, the negative! I mean, what is so bad about a polo shirt and khakis?

Adam: To me, it’s just a bit bland. Or tends to be. A designer and/or luxe polo shirt with dress pants can be striking, but the pique polo and chinos combo just isn’t expressive at all.

KNOWLEDGE CHECK: What’s the difference between khakis and chinos?

Brian: Do you think it has something to do with the fact that it’s just kind of “easy”?

Adam: For sure. I think that’s the exact other way of saying it. It doesn’t take much thought, so I people understandably don’t tend to put a lot into it. And the results show.

Brian: I wonder where that cultural sentiment comes from in terms of it being seen almost as something of a cop out.

Adam: Good question. But maybe it just stems from the polo’s roots as just that, a uniform.

Brian: Maybe. But I feel like it’s just not seen as dressed up enough. Or maybe those who look down on it do so not simply because of the fact that it’s worn so much, by so many different people, but rather that it has sort of become the uniform of a certain type of guy? It has taken on a bit of a “bro” connotation.

Adam: Ha! I hadn’t even thought about the bro-factor, which is so true! If you look younger than working age guys and think back to college, that was totally the polo crowd – the frat guys, athletes, et al.

Brian: Right, so if we go with that, then a polo and khakis might be considered dressed up, or at least dressy enough.

Adam: For sure. Its something that meets the minimum requirements.

Brian: Oh, I like that. “Minimum requirements.” And maybe that’s what it is – it has become something of a default “dressy outfit” regardless of whether a more dressed up dress code is specified.

Adam: I think that hits the nail on the head.

Brian: I personally don’t mind the look. I’ve worn it and I’m sure you have too.

polo-shirt-with-kahki-pants-brown-felt-fedora-brown-suede-loafers-mens-simple-casual-outfit-ideas-1

A deep placket is a simple element that can elevate a polo shirt and khaki pants outfit.

Adam: Oh, definitely. And a polo can be a really strong look if you actually do put a little thought into it.

Brian: So, let’s say that even if a guy who wears a polo shirt and khakis to something he should have dressed up more for. This is a guy who doesn’t get dressed up that often so in his mind, he’s making the effort to go above and beyond. In other words, theoretically, he’s trying. Should he be told to try harder?

Adam: I have this debate with myself often. To a large extent, I get that. While clothing and style and fashion are very important to me, that’s not to say it’s as important to other people.

Brian: And it doesn’t need to me.

Adam: Right. But at the same time, if there’s a dude out there who does care and keeps coming up with khakis and polos, I’d at least encourage him to put some more thought into it and try something new.

Brian: Ah, there’s an entirely different conversation we could have.

Adam: Totally.

Brian: Guys sort of have to come to it themselves. You or I couldn’t necessarily make that guy change his way of dressing. Maybe the significant other?

Adam: Hmmm, they just might have the power…

Brian: Okay, so just summing up here. A polo and khakis isn’t bad. But, you’ve got to be aware of the occasion and what would be acceptable.

Adam: Yes.

Brian: And we feel the main issue with the combo getting a bad rap is an over-reliance on the outfit for every dressy situation.

Adam: Absolutely. And I’d add that it’s also the complacency that tends to come with picking something that simply meets the ‘minimal requirements’. If you put thought and effort into a polo-based outfit, you can certainly end up with something great. But men too often tend not to do that.

What do you think? Chime in below!

Photography by Rob McIver Photo

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Chime In

  • Tom B

    Great post, guys! Yeah, polo and khakis is really tough to pull off well. To begin with, you’d better be in shape, otherwise you’ll look like Dibert. And then it’s so easy to get dirty – ok, here I’m revealing that I’m a slob/klutz, but Life Happens! Spills, drops, scuffs on light cloth… a disaster waiting to happen. Lastly – a pet peeve – stuff in your pockets just show through too much in khakis, even worse in chinos. Brian looks great in the 2nd photo (love the hat!), but I can almost see the make/model of his cellphone. Personally, I hate carrying anything other than a billfold in my pants pockets, thank gawd for blazers. Yeah, I’ll still wear khakis/polo shirt for casual get-together, spilled drinks and all, but for work it’s sportcoat and dress shirt (tie is another story).

    • http://hespokestyle.com/ Brian Sacawa

      Haha! Thanks for the callout, Tom… You know I think we took that photo as I was coming down to scope it out as I usually hand over everything in my pockets to Rob. Or it could have been that that particular photo was earlier in our career and I just wasn’t thinking!

      • Tom B

        Sure, blame Rob, works for me! As you can see, I’m not the only one who hates crap in the pockets. Obvious solutions are: carry less crap and use a blazer, even if it’s just folded over your arm (beats a man-purse). As long as you are writing about Dad- / Dude-wear, maybe you should do a post about cargo shorts? Haha!

        Note: In all seriousness, looks like Rob photographed you in lower level of Penn Station, Bal’more.. great work color-balancing the crazy mix of artificial and natural light down there… And I think you once wrote that y’all dont use speedlights on these shoots. Wow, how did he get the light to wrap (highlights on both sides of you)? Reflectors? I’m always learning from Rob, thank you!

        • Dan Goldstein

          cargo shorts & cargo pants = on the job contractor. If you’re not a contractor or going fishing, don’t do it! This coming from a guy who used to constantly wear them. I wised up and now buy pants that fit and I put crap in a bag. I must have looked like a clown lol

          • Tom B

            You may have missed my sarcasm :). That being said, I’m wearing cargo shorts right now. In my defense, it’s Saturday and I’m about to head down to the local creek, so there you go….

    • https://www.instagram.com/beardedfancyman/?hl=en Bill Tourangeau

      Stuff in pockets. We share that pet peeve!
      Oh my… this is something I struggle with regularly! Unless I have a jacket or shoulder bag, I’ve taken to carrying only my drivers license, a credit card and my cellphone with me. I cannot stand a wallet bulge, and bumps in my front pockets are even worse! I have (had, at the moment) a Galaxy Note 7, because I use the screen-off note function constantly, and try to keep it in my hand whenever my jacket or bag isnt an option. I’m spoiled by the large screen, and can never see myself going back to a smaller one, but I feel extremely self conscious when it is in my pocket!

      • http://hespokestyle.com/ Brian Sacawa

        Oh, as a rule I hate carrying things in my pockets as well. I used to use an M-Clip money clip, but have taken to using a simple card wallet instead. No George Constanza wallets here! If I don’t have a briefcase with me, I’ll generally use my inner (and outer) jacket pockets.

        • Paul Loudon

          Great conversation, gentlemen! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your discussion of something I struggle with everyday; how to carry those essential, everyday, items! I find it very hard to go without my “man-bag” (as they are disparagingly described down here in Australia); even if it feels a bit ridiculous when it only has about 3 things in it! I’ve wondered before how Brian hides his phone and other items in the photos. I guess the secret is out there now!

          I personally have never worn a polo shirt; thinking that it is neither smart nor casual. I would always opt for a t-shirt or button-up instead. Saying that, my father does have 2 or 3 polos which he rocks rather well come summer time!

          • http://hespokestyle.com/ Brian Sacawa

            That’s an interesting perspective, Paul. I rather like the fact that you’re deliberately choosing zero middle ground between a t-shirt and button-up, as I feel a polo shirt sort of bridges that gap.

      • Dan Goldstein

        my wallet, phone, keys, receipts, snacks, etc. go into a $25 Moore Carden bag from Amazon. It’s light, it’s cheap and it looks decent enough. I also have a nicer looking Calvin Klein bag for when I need to carry to a nicer event. I seldom put or leave anything in my coats since I rotate coats often and I’ve definitely been one to leave my wallet at home in a coat I wore yesterday, but didn’t wear today and am driving :

  • https://www.instagram.com/beardedfancyman/?hl=en Bill Tourangeau

    There isn’t anything inherently bad about it, but I do believe it’s got a bad reputation as the go-to outfit for the bland, 30-something suburban dad; department store brand Polo shirt, khakis and New Balance tennis shoes.
    More thought into the shoes and accessories can elevate this look quite a bit, because it isn’t a terrible look so much as a look of uninspired banality.
    …and I’m saying that sitting in my office in a royal blue polo with ox blood chinos and black double monk strap loafers!

    • http://hespokestyle.com/ Brian Sacawa

      Thanks for the comment, Bill. I think we’re all definitely in agreement that the dismay over the combo comes from the fact that it’s really turned into a de facto “dressy” outfit. Certainly nothing wrong with it, but you’re right, it can be very uninspired.

    • http://WideEyesTightWallets.com/ A. Lehman

      Yes! Shoes and accessories can definitely help. I also think some designers and brands are doing great ‘elevated’ polos – the company I work at did a merino polo last year that definitely took the concept to another level.

      • https://www.instagram.com/beardedfancyman/?hl=en Bill Tourangeau

        There are unquestionably some incredible polo shirts out there… some of the designers are doing amazing things with various fabrics and cuts; and to me, label isn’t something I pay much attention to anymore. It’s really more about the fit and cut of the garment than the label and having said label conspicuously displayed for all to see!! I’ve been lucky on a couple of occasions and stumbled upon some store brand items that just fit incredibly (I’m a former strongman/powerlifter a.k.a. ‘athlete in decline’ lol, so fit can often be an issue). Not to mention that they are cut in a manner that is in contrast to their store-brand price!

  • Michael Valentine

    I wore chinos and polo shirts for years in the warmer months. I

    • http://hespokestyle.com/ Brian Sacawa

      Kudos to you for stepping up your game, Michael. How has it been received?

  • Dan Goldstein

    First off, I’m definitely not a “bro”, wasn’t in a frat (I kinda disliked those guys), and could care less about the sports.

    Secondly, I have to wear a company logo’ed (blue/green logo) polo (black or white 100% cotton) shirt or black long sleeve or short sleeve shirt every day. I also have black and deep navy company logo’ed fleece vests. No, they’re not going to win me a runway trophy or make any girls swoon, but it’s what I’m expected to wear. My work place is a factory, so mostly blue collar and non-corporate-minded white collar workers.

    Since my top-half in the office is pretty much stagnant, I try as best I can to mix up my wardrobe from my neck up or waist down. I wear a hat in and out (fedora, panama or flat cap). I do wear scarves if the weather calls for it, but again, it comes off when I work. From the waist down I’ll wear either dark jeans or Dockers beige (the khaki color) khakis and then select from my range of colorful socks: polka-dots, geometric shapes, etc. Then I mix up my shoes and try to keep a match to my belt: AE blue Neumoks, AE distressed brown Voyagers, JCP cap-toe brown boots (best $50 pair of boots :)), tan Sperry boat shoes (need to wear socks though), some old Sketcher (boo-hiss, I know!) black low-cut boots or when the rain or snow really sucks, 8″ LL Bean boots.

    I drive to and from work, 5 miles each way, so pretty much no one really sees what I’m wearing. So, outerwear is mostly for practicality and just making myself feel good and am not discounting that value.

    I’m glad this article came along because I’ve been recently pondering how else I can elevate my look given the company prescribed clothing. I might also toss on a Banana Republic heather gray blazer for this fall. Some hate the blazer over polo look, but I’ve seen more suggestions that it could work.

    I save my full fashion freedom for the weekend outings.

  • Luc

    Quick question: tucked in or not?

  • http://www.tailorandbarber.com/ Tailor & Barber

    I definitely get what you two are saying, and I agree for the most part. I do think that color can play a big part though. I recently picked up a pair of mint-ish colored chinos. Pairing those with a navy polo and some white leather sneakers makes a bigger style statement and tan khakis and a blue or red polo with some square-toed “dress” shoes.

    I don think I’ve fallen into the trap of falling back on this look because it’s easy too, and I’m thankful for the reminder to break out of that pattern.

  • RallyLock

    Similar to Michael Valentine above, I’m a teacher. However, I’m also 6’6″ tall and somewhere over 300 lbs., and I was a life-long athlete until I graduated college. Constant range of motion has always been a pretty important factor of my personal fashion style, and the polo-and-khaki outfit is great for walking around the classroom or using my hands/arms while I teach. I will wear a full suit and tie for something like a job interview or a high school graduation ceremony, but for daily wear, even casual long-sleeve button-down shirts can feel constrictive and almost claustrophobic to me unless the fabric is really thin and lightweight.

  • Kurt Wetzel

    You show a Polo shirt with khakis but what about other dress pants in different colors? Dark gray or black in particular.
    I find nothing wrong with the Polo shirt and dress pants look. For most office jobs in today’s world it meets the minimum dress code requirements. You can make the look less boring by wearing different colors of Polo shirts and buy wearing higher quality Polo shirts. A big difference in a name brand Polo shirt as opposed to a Walmart brand one. Also un-tucked Polo shirt or tucked in changes the outfit.
    In my opinion this look all comes down to the dress style appropriate for that event or your job.