Golf and Women's Fashion: A Retrospective

Check out our retrospective on men's golf fashion.

From a gender standpoint, golf has been an "equal opportunity game" for quite a long time. American women have been playing golf since at least the late 1800s; Harper's Bazaar was publishing illustrations of women playing golf by 1894. So while the early days of the game kept social classes separate, there were plenty of women playing the golf alongside the men.

As far as women's attire was concerned in these early days, and in keeping with the times, propriety came first and comfort second (or eighth, by the looks of things).

Women are depicted wearing long-sleeved, high-collar blouses and long, ankle-length skirts. Rather than a sun-shading hat, it appears women favored fashionable, "fascinator"-styles -- perhaps because they were so restricted by propriety from the neck down.

Just as in men's golf fashion, women's golf fashion saw a shift to more practical adjustment during the early 1900s. In 1904, a name you might recognize -- Thomas Burberry -- introduced changes to make ladies' golf attire a little more practical, such as a coat (the "Free-stroke" coat) with sleeves that allowed for better movement than the long, tight sleeves previously favored, and a drawstring skirt (first seen in earlier days of croquet) that could be raised up off the ground to allow for an uninterrupted swing. These pieces are a far cry from the sleek, modern Burberry sport fashion.

Like male golfers, by the 1920s women had turned to more comfortable, practical clothing when hitting the links. Sweaters replaced jackets, skirts got narrower to interfere less with the golf swing, and lightweight, breathable jersey knit became a popular fabric. Jersey knit had long been reserved for use in undergarments, but Coco Chanel was popularizing its use for women's garments by the 1920s. The fashion world was turned on its ear by Coco's use of jersey, according to biographer Justine Picardie in Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, and it was a scandalous move for the times, but it must have been a revelation for sweaty golfers everywhere.

Another practical innovation during this period was the use of pleats, which were introduced into both shirts and skirts, allowing for freedom of movement but also providing some visual interest and overall crispness to the sporting look.

The 1920s saw flapper-influenced styles reflected in women's golf fashion through more boyish cuts in skirts and blouses; hats were sleek, and fitted close to the head. Vintage fashion ads from the period primarily depict women in skirts, though the occasional knickers-and-stockings combination appears such as in Sir John Lavery's painting "Golfing at North Berwick" (ca. 1920).

In The Art of Golf, Jordan Mears explains that by the early 1920s, women's golf dress was much more relaxed (gone were the corsets and long skirts) and, "In fact, the boyish and carefree style of clothing associated with golf became extremely fashionable and was a common subject for French fashion plates in the 1920s and 1930s." Mademoiselle Chanel came along just in time, then.

It was also during the 1920s that the "Shirtmaker" appeared -- a one-piece dress developed by Best & Co. (New York) that became so popular that it dominated golf fashion for women for the next three decades.

Skirt length remained relatively long throughout this 30-year period, and fashion historians often point out that while tennis skirts became shorter, the golf skirt remained at calf-length until the 1960s when it was bumped up to a spectacularly racy knee height. Meow!

Once the 1970s rolled around, skirts became somewhat passé and were eschewed in favor of pants and shorts and that crowd favorite the culotte. (Or "skort," if you prefer.) Those women who continued to wear skirts let the hem creep up to tennis-level (read: pretty short), but by the 1990s no one was too concerned with how much thigh a golf skirt was revealing.

Modern golfers like Annika Sorenstam and Michele Wi have come back around to the golf skirt, in a mid-thigh length and made of high-tech materials now favored by athletes for their moisture-wicking, sun-reflecting and wind-deflecting properties.

So often in fashion, men get the short end of the stick while the women enjoy the most variety and trend-setting. But with one dress dominating a full 30 years of women's golf fashion, we have to conclude that when it comes to golf, the guys really set the stage for sartorial entertainment.

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Christina Uticone