Top form: Polo Ralph Lauren

The American fashion designer's most famous garment conveys an air of casual sophistication that stands the test of time

The word polo is so synonymous with Ralph Lauren it seems almost unbelievable that when the menswear designer launched his first collection bearing the name, he had not even seen the sport played, let alone stepped onto the field himself. Yet the moniker, chosen to convey a certain elegance and sophistication by association, proved the perfect platform for the aspirational style that defined Lauren's career and saw the boy from the Bronx build a multi-billion-dollar fashion empire.

And if there's one item that has come to define the relaxed, preppy realm that the brand has dominated for decades, it's the polo shirt. The tried-and-tested option for when the occasion demands more than a T-shirt but not quite the formality of a traditional shirt, Lauren's modern take has its roots in the attire originated by the polo players of the 1800s, who demanded turned-over collars that would stay put throughout a match.

Today, this most versatile of garments can be adapted to suit whatever the sartorial situation; available plain or personalised, long or short-sleeved, in a choice of 85 colours and in three distinct cuts of varying degrees of relaxedness. While the breathable cotton mesh seen in the brand's original remains the most popular, the list of materials has since expanded to include more forgiving stretch options as well as soft-touch Pima cotton.

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As with much of Lauren's designs, the brilliance is in the small details. Nowadays, the polo shirt is just as likely to be sported in the workplace as on the pitch, but should you decide to put it through its paces it has you covered; the signature rib-knit collar and armbands are specially stitched to resist stretching, while tubular taping reinforces the high-stress areas across the shoulders and neckline. Dress it up with a suit for smart-casual affairs, pair with jeans for an easy weekend look or team with a chunky cable-knit sweater to channel quintessential Stateside style.

Photography: Roger Rich; fashion director: Jo Levin; photo assistant: Matt Foxley; fashion assistant: Marina Hambro; hair: Jason Crozier at Stella Creative using Fudge Professional from CrozNest; model: James Granstrom at MOT Models;

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