Are Polo-Neck Sweaters Stylish or Stodgy? Depends How Old You Are


THE POLO-COLLAR sweater has long been favored by elder statesmen and members of fusty golf clubs. But this fall, designers have modernized the easy-to-wear classic, offering collared knits in snazzy shades, lively patterns (see Italian brand Missoni’s intarsia iteration, below) and loose, comfortable weaves. Are these updates enough to make the collared pullover shed its stodgy reputation? Men’s fashion editor Jacob Gallagher and Off Duty editor Dale Hrabi debate the issue.

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JACOB: Dale, for a couple years now, I’ve been wearing polo-collar sweaters—long-sleeve knits with a little three-button collar. I like them in dark colors with a white tee underneath. I find them more interesting than a plain crewneck sweater. But I understand you think these sweaters are a bit stodgy. Where does that come from?

DALE: You want me to dig deep into my psyche for sweater insights?

JACOB: Humor me.

DALE: OK. Let’s put it this way. You’re a young man who runs every morning. Everything looks good on you. I’ve got a few decades on you…my body is on the saggy side. So I avoid anything that I think makes me look “old” or even less cool. As in, even less cool than Mel Gibson. Or Mel Brooks. Or anyone named Mel, practically, including that Spice Girl.

JACOB: I certainly look more like Mr. Brooks than I do a Spice Girl, but I see your point.

DALE: We’re not talking about you! You’re the I-run-every-morning guy who looks good in lederhosen. My point is that the more standard versions of these sweaters, like the Uniqlo one shown here, look frumpy on men who aren’t taut and broad in the right places. And, to my mind, they telegraph complacency. It’s such a genteel, middle-of-the-road, self-satisfied, plump look.

1. A button-free taupe take in autumnal-hued Italian mohair blend. Shirt, about $300, sefr-online.com; 2. Chevrons distinguish cream wool. Jil Sander Sweater, $850, matches fashion.com; 3. A simple olive option in a Merino blend. Sweater, $50, uniqlo.com; 4. If your taste runs to painterly patterns. Missoni Shirt, $770, mrporter.com; 5. A sportily striped style in extra-fine Merino. Shirt, $310, johnsmedley.com

JACOB: I’d say appearing self-satisfied (read: smug) has more to do with your demeanor than your clothes, no?

DALE: Not entirely. Certain pieces of attire work as signifiers that send pretty unmistakable messages. Like a monocle pretty much says you’re a stuck-up intellectual who lives in the past. To me, if you’re over 45 or 50, that Uniqlo sweater has a wanna-be country-club-member feel to it. But I have to admit that some of the other polo-collar sweaters pictured here are anything but stodgy. I really like that white Jil Sander one. If I had better posture, I could maybe pull that off. Perhaps my thinking needs to evolve?

JACOB: Well, as you know, I’m wont to wear some pretty noticeable pants on any given day (I’m wearing work pants with little flower designs all over them as I type this) and a boring, “middle-of-the-road” sweater steers my overall outfit away from Bozo-the-Clown-ville. I don’t want to discount your concerns, so I’ll offer that the light, almost breezy feel of these polo-collar sweaters keeps them youthful, unstodgy. On the other hand (and oh, this is a crucial distinction) I look at the chunkier zip-neck version of these sweaters as the fusty ones. Do we disagree on those as well?

DALE: Yikes. I think so. I have a chunky, green, zip-up sweater from Club Monaco that I’ve worn for years. I’m convinced it makes me look dashing and youthful. Maybe because zippers are just…zippier than old-school buttons. Oh-oh. Hold on. I just found this bit on CNN.com about Mister Rogers of children’s-TV fame: “When his show first aired in February 1968, Rogers had initially donned a button-down sweater. But he switched to zippers the following season because they made it easier for him to perform his minute-long routine of changing from work to casual attire.” So…hmmm. Mister Rogers is not exactly my role model.

JACOB: There’s just something about that zip that shouts complacency, isn’t there? At a certain age it’s understandable that you wouldn’t want to be bothered with buttons anymore. I’m not quite ready for ease to be my main criterion when I shop for a sweater. For me, the floppiness—the, dare I say, loucheness—that comes from unbuttoning a polo-collar sweater sends a message of vitality that your basic crewneck sweater doesn’t. So have I won you over?

DALE: Not really, no. It seems like, when it comes to sweaters, complacency is in the eye of the beholder. And stop saying “louche.”

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