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Golf and Men's Fashion: A Retrospective

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This weekend Houston is going to be graced with some of the game's biggest names when Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino compete in "The Greats of Golf" competition at The Woodlands Tournament Course on Saturday, May 5, during the Insperity Championship tournament. This foursome represents the living history of the modern golf game, and Houston-area golf fans won't want to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these players on the course together.

Golf was a big deal in my family. My grandfather Lester (or "Lec" to his friends) loved to golf, and passed that love down to his sons and his grandchildren. While I didn't take up the game until later in life, the tradition continued with me in a less-athletic way -- the fashion of golf. I always loved the preppy look of the pastel golf shirt, the quirky mix of patterns and colors, and the occasional tartan hat or vest. While my grandfather was cheering on great shots off the tee, I was watching to see who would most successfully pair plaid with stripes.

My first bartending job was at my grandfather's country club, and it was then that my real education into the importance of the golf attire began. The members pulled "Lec's girl" aside to impart to me the importance of not only my attire and presentation, but of those who came into the clubhouse. First and foremost, I was instructed, a collared shirt is required. Next, absolutely no jeans, and no athletic or "gym" shorts were allowed; caps with bills were acceptable, but under no circumstances should they be worn backwards. Should I see anyone breaking these rules in the clubhouse, it was important to remind them--privately, but firmly--that proper attire was required at all times. (Too many martinis? No problem! No collar on your shirt? You're outta here!)

These traditions originate from a technical standpoint--billed caps, collars, and long pants protect against sun and wind--as well as a long-held notion of golf as a "gentleman's game"; civilized, decorous, and proper. Today form and function continue to inform the way professional golfers interpret their dress on the course ... but wouldn't it be great to see knickers make a real comeback?

The Early Years of Golf

Without diving too deeply into the earliest origins of the game of golf, which are somewhat in dispute, the game as we know it today is widely credited with originating in Scotland. In "The Art of Golf" essayist Jordan Mearns writes, "(G)olf occupies a privileged and largely unquestioned place in Scottish national consciousness and sporting life. With its widespread international following, which transcends national boundaries, golf appeals to broad and geographically varied audiences, many of whom have a deep interest in the game's heritage and acknowledge that Scotland is golf's spiritual home." Images of golf began appearing in late nineteenth century paintings, such as During the Time of the Sermonses (1896) which show men in elegant, formal dress of the times: kilts with stockings, tailcoats, cravats, and even top hats.

Considering the climate of Scotland it makes sense that golfers would bundle up against the elements. If you have ever watched the British Open played at The Old Course at St. Andrews you know that the cold, wind, and sun make a challenging combination. And because golf was a game whose expense dictated only the elite would participate, fancy dress was also a symbol of status; an unspoken way to communicate, and perhaps intimidate, one's opponents. Why Tiger Woods hasn't employed a top hat strategy to his comeback attempt is beyond me.

Turn of the Century

Golf fashions remained relatively formal through the early twentieth century, until about the 1920s. As golf's popularity began to spread worldwide, the fashions of the Jazz Age influenced what players wore on the course. The look was captured in a popular portrait of David, Prince of Whales (Edward VIII), painted by Irish artist Sir William Orpen. Orpen and his contemporary, painter Sir John Lavery, were "both highly-sought after and fashionable society portraitists who also fulfilled the very different role of official war artists." (Mearns, "The Art of Golf") In this famous 1927 portrait, Orpen painted the future King Edward VIII in a decidedly less formal outfit (and pose) than previous royal portraits. In "The Art of Golf" Mearns writes that although the club that commissioned the portrait preferred the prince pose in a red captain's coat, the prince's own preference "was to be shown wearing a knitted sweater and plus fours, fashionable attire that greatly influenced styles in golfing clothing." One can imagine the shock at seeing a young prince's ankles, and then to see him sport a scoop-neck sweater? England didn't swoon that hard again until Wills came along.

These "plus fours" were long knickers that added four inches to the regular length of the garment, and by the 1920s they were were de rigeur for fashionable male golfers. Plus fours were usually paired with patterned stockings and spectator-style golf shoes, and worn with button-down shirts with ties (long, or bow-ties), and a long cardigan or a jacket when cold weather required. Rather than the formal top-hat, men wore newsboy caps and fedoras, or "Panama hats."

Just like in music and ladies' fashion, the Roaring '20s signaled the end of elegance and propriety in men's golf fashion. By the 1930s, knickers were being abandoned for long, lightweight pants, the jackets were getting shorter, and ties became fewer and far between. By the time that rakish Arnold Palmer came along in the 1950s--with his short-sleeved polo, pleated pants, and cigarette dangling between his lips--the game had become (gasp!) accessible to the masses, and the fashion had succumbed to the comfort and ease of streetwear. It was like they wanted just anyone to think they could play, or look like they could play, the gentleman's game of golf. The Old Guard (Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen) held fast to traditional dress, but by the time those hippies in the 1960s got a hold of everyone, the knicker had gone the way of the greatcoat.

The 1960s, Onward

One of the most entertaining lines about golf fashion ever written comes from a brief slideshow compiled by Golf.com for Sports Illustrated. In describing the fashion of the era, the caption explains: "The caddies looked like hippies; the players looked like Tom Jones playing Vegas." The caption goes on to note that players began differentiating themselves through their attire: Doug Sanders matched socks to his shirts, while Gary Player went for an all-black, undertaker-on-the-fairways look to set himself apart from the wild colors and patterns employed by other players. By the time the 1980s rolled around golfers weren't just expressing themselves with what they wore, they were designing their clothes themselves. Among the most famous golfer/designers are Greg Norman ("Shark"), Arnold Palmer ("Arnie"), and of course, Tiger Woods for Nike. High-tech fabrics employed waterproofing, moisture-wicking, and stretch to create clothes that appealed to a golfer's desire for any little edge. Today clothes feature open-weave panels for ventilation and SPF protection.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, golf gained traction among the middle class in America, and players began accepting--and wearing--sponsorship; on their sleeves, hats, bags, and anywhere else a logo would fit. Television created legions of fans, many of whom didn't play the game themselves, so by the time Tiger Woods won his first Masters in 1997, the world was ready to be lit on fire by the game of golf. Tiger delivered, and his signature "red shirt on Sundays" became the latest in golf fashion traditions, mimicked by hackers on municipal courses everywhere. (Disclaimer: I'm a hacker who plays municipal courses--no hate mail, please.)

On the Course Today

These days almost anything goes on the course. Before he passed away in 1999, Payne Stewart was working the vintage golf look, preferring knickers and stockings with newsboy caps. Some players, like my beloved Phil Mickelson, keep the flair to a minimum with the occasional pinstriped pant or bright golf polo. John Daly is as well-known for his loud golf pants as his bad-boy antics and inconsistent play. One of the hardest-to-miss golfers on the tour at the moment is 23-year-old Rickie Fowler. Fowler has a penchant for the loudest of the neons, and typically wears them from head-to-toe: hat, shirt, pants, and shoes; he also wears his hair in a longish, Bieber-esque flip that peeks out from under his cap.

And just as fashion influenced golf, golf influences fashion right back. Naturally athletic apparel designers like Puma, Nike, and Adidas will be in on the action but designers are making concerted efforts to blend golf with chic, high-fashion design. Evan Golf was created by designer JeeJee Han, a golfer whose aim was to reflect the emerging popularity of golf among the young and fashionable.

Next week: Golf and Women's Fashion: A Retrospective

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