Breaking The Code - Golf Apparel For Women
At many clubs, shorts must be long and skin is not in. But a showdown is looming between old-school dress codes and new-school style of golf apparel for women
by Dana White
For the sake of argument, let’s say you’ve wrangled a coveted invitation to play in a foursome at an exclusive country club. You’ve been playing golf for only a couple of years on your local public course, where a person could tee off in a bikini if she wanted to. But this is a special occasion, and like a teenager preparing for her prom, you select your wardrobe: a sleeveless white Nike golf dress with a boat neck and a black stripe down the front. It’s very Audrey Hepburn—chic enough, you figure, for a fancy private club.
You’ve figured wrong. Just as you’re pushing your tee into the turf, a man strolls up and informs you that this club has a collar rule. And since that Nike dress lacks said collar, you’ll have to change into something more “appropriate.” Highly annoyed, you ask him where these rules come from. He just shrugs and answers, “That’s the way it’s always been.”
You have now entered the fashion twilight zone known as The Code, where an attempt to make a 21st-century style statement bumps up against attire rules that were established when Eisenhower was in office. Yet like many gender-based conventions in golf, these dress codes seem to be at a crossroads. “Golf fashion” is no longer an oxymoron; designers are creating golf apparel for women that are athletic, pretty and made of performance fabrics you’re more likely to see in a Bally Total Fitness commercial than on a golf course. But not all of these clothes, however attractive, have collars—or demure hemlines, for that matter. And therein lies the problem.
Private country clubs see themselves as among the last outposts of gentility and etiquette, and as anyone who has followed the Augusta saga knows, the golfing establishment can be resistant to social change.
A private club is free to make any rule it wants, and if its board feels that requiring a collar is the best way to stave off an invasion of Hooters T-shirts, then that’s just the way it is. “Dress codes “are a part of the game,” says Nancy Paton, former president of the Women’s Metropolitan Golf Association in Elmsford, New York. “Golf is a game of civility and of manners and of integrity. So it’s appropriate that people dress the part.”
The strictness of these rules and the extent to which they’re enforced vary from club to club, but the fact remains that when it comes to getting dressed, few sports have so many wrinkles. Shirts must be tucked in, shorts no more than two inches above the knee. Tops must have a collar or sleeves or both. No denim or anything resembling denim. No capris, skorts or caps worn backward. Tank tops? In your dreams.
But these days, when designer jeans pass as formal-wear in some circles, what is appropriate? “Many things that people thought were horrible 30 years ago aren’t perceived as horrible today,” says Marty Hackel, fashion director of Golf Digest. “Fashion and style evolve. These dress codes are very static. To say that to be tasteful and appropriate, shorts must be two inches above your knee—that’s a little antiquated.”
Nike, for one, is stirring the winds of change. The athletic-wear superpower is launching an expanded line of golf apparel for women that it hopes will help women “push the envelope” of what’s appropriate (racer-back tops, anyone?). “We feel the women’s golf apparel market has been extremely conservative in the last decade,” says David Hagler, Nike’s director of apparel. Women today, he asserts, “want to dress in a more fashionable, modern way. They dress that way in their everyday lives; they dress that way when they go to work. Why shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to dress that way when they go to the golf course?”
Hagler’s design team takes dress codes into account—to a point. “We’ll say, ‘Okay, we need to have a certain segment of our product be applicable to the private country clubs and their regulations,’” he says. “So, we’ll look at the length of our shorts, and we’ll make sure a high percentage of our tops have collars. At the same time, we don’t want to restrict having a very fashionable line of golf apparel for women at the expense of conforming to regulations. We feel that country clubs ought to look more seriously at those regulations and what’s realistic.”
This sentiment is echoed by other designers, big and small. Kitten with Her Sticks offers unabashedly body-conscious clothes, including a curve-hugging golf dress and a low-cut tank. You could even call the clothes sexy. “I don’t have a problem with sex,” declares designer and CEO Teresa Gutierrez. A striking redheaded actress who named her company after the 1963 Ann-Margret film Kitten with a Whip, Gutierrez yearns for the days when golf and glamour were not mutually exclusive. “Let’s take Dinah Shore,” she says. “She used to wear bodysuits. She put on a scarf and really dressed up. Somewhere down the line, it got to be a more traditional polo-and-Bermuda-shorts approach.” Gutierrez wants to transform the image of golf clothes much the same way that Venus and Serena Williams, with their beaded braids and catsuits, gave tennis fashion a pop-culture makeover. “Why do we have to say that all sports attire has to be conservative?” she asks. “Today, a more confident, more physically fit woman would say, ‘Hey, look, I can wear something that’s showing a little more flesh.’”
How much flesh is too much depends on how old you are. Patricia Dixon, owner of Empowered Women’s Golf in Plano, Texas, says that when it comes to dress codes, there’s a generation gap as wide as the ravine on Pebble Beach’s eighth hole when it comes to golf apparel for women. Not long ago, Dixon posted magazine photos of golfers wearing everything from Bermudas to halter tops on a bulletin board and asked her customers for feedback. “There was one photo of [LPGA Tour Star] Grace Park, and at the top of her swing you could see a little bit of her tummy,” recalls Dixon. “And you should have heard the uproar from the older women! It was like, ‘Oh, she’s showing skin!’ I said, ‘Have you looked in the mall? That’s the look. Everybody’s showing skin. So what? It makes you look like a woman, and what’s wrong with that?’”
Golf Fashion - Old and New School
There is middle ground in this debate. As more fashion houses such as Ralph Lauren and Burberry have jumped into women’s golf wear, the selection of good-looking clothes that also meet the dress code has taken off like a well-struck drive. Tommy Hilfiger designs each piece in its women’s line to conform to traditional dress codes, an approach that’s in keeping with its established preppy style.
Claudia Romana, a Manhattan-based designer formerly with J. Crew, has found a beautiful compromise between what’s Code and what’s cool. Her Bermudas are cuffed and low-waisted, and her colors are subtle and pretty without being bubblegum. Romana started her own company two years ago out of frustration with the paltry selection of women’s golf apparel and a desire not to look “either like a shrunken-down man or a candy wrapper.”
She sees a disconnect between what women want and what pro shops think women want, and offers as an example a top that she designed with color blocking in black and sand. “I thought it was a little fashion forward,” she says, but she tried to sell it anyway. Golf pros found it “a little over the top,” she adds, “and they’d buy only two. But the minute it hit the stores, it sold out. The buyers were hesitant, but the customers loved it.”
The First Rules of Golf, drafted in 1744, addressed such issues as what to do if “your Ball be stopp’d by any person, Horse, or Dog.” But they say nary a word about Collars. When the members of Scotland’s Edinburgh Silver Club gathered to debate these 13 guidelines, they seemed little concerned about wardrobe. (They were men, after all.) But wardrobe wasn’t always an issue. According to golf historian John Derr, golfers wore everyday clothes in the early part of the 20th century. “Only after some bluebloods decided there should be rules, were there,” says Derr.
Before World War II, when the sport became popularized, golf “was considered an elite sport for women who had financial means and access to private clubs,” says Rhonda Glenn, a top amateur in the 1960s and author of The Illustrated Guide to Women’s Golf. “Women were participating in shooting parties and riding; they wore the same sort of clothes to play golf. Men wore jackets and ties; women wore jackets and ties.” In the 1920s and ’30s, long skirts were de rigueur, though the true mavericks donned knickers. The first woman to wear slacks in competition was Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who played in them at the 1947 British Ladies Open Amateur, much to the amusement of the gallery. Bermuda shorts became acceptable in the mid 1950s—“knee length or an inch above,” says Glenn. Of course, this was when women wore white gloves to church and Donna Reed vacuumed in her pearls.
Then the 1960s happened, and “all that seemed to sort of topple,” says Glenn. “But the private clubs stuck to their guns” and institutionalized dress codes. Still, with the right blend of gutsiness and good humor, an influential female member could change the rules. Take Annice Smith, for example. Smith, 79, claims that in 1961, she became the first woman to wear pants at Winged Foot, the famous club in Mamaroneck, New York. “I had it all figured out,” says the feisty 18-handicapper. “I had a bell-bottom pantsuit with a long tunic. I figured if anybody complained, I would take the slacks off and wear the tunic top like a dress. No one complained. Then it was allowed.” She drew the line at miniskirts: “Only people with bad taste wore them.”
Or people on the LPGA Tour. The fact is, while the private clubs were sticking to their guns, the professional players were practicing the same hemline experimentation as the rest of society. Nancy Lopez was the master of the long putt and the miniskirt crouch, and Laura Baugh knocked ’em dead with her soaring drives and body-hugging dresses. Today, a new generation of younger players such as Spain’s Paula Marti and America’s Dorothy Delasin are bringing a street sensibility to the LPGA. Golf Digest’s Marty Hackel, for one, finds it ironic that “half the gals on the LPGA Tour couldn’t walk onto a lot of golf courses in the clothes they wear when they play tour events.”
The older the club, the more private the club, the more inflexible it tends to be. Which brings us to the Measuring Tape, another thing those Scottish rule-makers of yore never mentioned. It was a lovely March day in 1983, and Eva Jagner, a Swedish citizen, was playing with her husband at a resort course in southern California. “Once we reached the ninth green, a man carrying a measuring tape walked up and asked to measure my shorts,” Jagner recalls. “A member had reported that a woman guest was wearing shorts that were too short and had to be stopped. Completely stunned, I let him measure the distance from the bottom of my shorts to my knees.” Her shorts came up short by an inch, and she had to interrupt her game and go to the pro shop to buy a regulation-length pair for $50. “They allowed me to go back out on the tenth hole with my old pair in a plastic bag. This humiliating experience didn’t exactly increase my interest in the game of golf.”
This practice continues today at a handful of private courses, but in general, The Code has relaxed in recent years. Winged Foot has let women wear shorts since the late 1990s and last year started allowing men to wear them in the summer. In fact, dress codes are one area in golf where women have an advantage over men. For example, Northwood Club in North Dallas, Texas, will allow women, but not men, to wear T-shirts. “We’re not real strict as long as women aren’t wearing short-shorts,” says Bob Elliott, the golf pro. “We’ll let them play in anything but those tube tops.”
So let’s say you decide to conduct a fashion experiment: How far can you stretch The Code before it snaps? When the fall collections hit the stores, you buy a one-piece catsuit from Kitten with Her Sticks that buttons down the front and belts at the waist—very sleek, very Charlie’s Angels. You’ll wear it at the same club that turned you away when you wore that chic Nike golf dress and see what happens. You imagine the head-scratching, the pros huddled in heated discussion. Will you play or will you go? You’re betting on playing. After all, you have an ace in the hole: The catsuit has a collar.
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