Business casual killed the basic pique cotton polo. It took a trim, sporty shirt option and drowned it in the shallow waters of generic corporate acceptability. In the last few years, when I wore a pique polo, like standard offerings from from Lacoste or Gap, it was a last resort–for days when it was too hot for long sleeves and the setting wasn’t right for the print or camp-style shirts I might prefer.
Banished to thrift store racks for years, the ban-lon style polo offers a potential alternative, emphasizing a slightly louche 1960s/70s aesthetic, the night club to the pique polo’s country club. “Ban-lon” really refers to a synthetic fabric popular in the 1970s that was used for a lot of knit garments, from polos to sweaters to full bodysuits, but is today shorthand for a specific style of polo: one that’s closer to a sweater than a tshirt; generally one with an integrated (but not necessarily ribbed) collar, a short, two or three button placket, and bands at the end of each sleeve and the waist. They were meant to be worn untucked, sweater style, as opposed to the “tennis tail” uneven hem of pique or golf polos.
The ban-lon polo has seen a couple of resurgences, once in the late 90s when Swingers made Rat Pack Vegas cool again, and again in the prime of Mad Men, where vintage specimens appeared on Don Draper and Stan Rizzo. For the most part, in the past ban-lon polos were not luxury garments–for many people, they’re familiar from Sears catalogs and thrift store racks, as (apparently) real ban-lon fabric is about as biodegradable as styrofoam.
How to Wear Them
To continue the comparison to the more common pique polo, where you might wear a pique polo with madras shorts or other prep gear, the ban-lon polo looks more at home with lightweight wool trousers (for a mod or Italian feel) or vintage fatigues–less Ivy, more grimy. Their collars are often a little larger and more likely to lay flat than those ribbed cotton collars on pique polos, so they can be a good fit under a jacket. The knit also lends itself well to textures and patterns, and modern, designer offerings can be quite loud, and best paired with more neutral tones unless you want to go full 70s wood-paneled rumpus room.
The waist band is a complicating factor–for guys (like me) without a particularly trim waist, I find a fitted waistband potentially flattering, but not if it’s actually tight (had this problem with a very slim Patrik Ervell polo). I find overall it’s best to wear them a little relaxed (see the top image in this post, from Ethan Newton’s instagram, or the black and white photo of Chet Baker) than body-hugging (more like Stan Rizzo’s blue polo).
Where to Find Them
A few years ago I mentioned ban-lons as a summer shirt possibility, but I couldn’t find many new models on offer–that has changed. That’s fortunate, because although vintage ban-lons are pretty common, the original ban-lon fabric has a reputation for not being very breathable, and (appropriately) many vintage models seem to have been owned by heavy smokers. John Smedley has for years made a truly “sweater style” short sleeve polo; this year even J. Crew offers one (in cotton, in subdued colors); I really like the looks of the Runabout Goods acrylic model (pictured in the lead image above), which is available at Brycelands; mod outfitter Jump the Gun offers an Italian made version with vertical stripes; and of course there’s vintage–keep an eye on ebay and Etsy (prices can be pretty good), and you can buy Stan Rizzo’s shirt if you want.