An unexpected purchase leads to an unbuckled trip down the rabbit hole of golf’s fashion history
By Miles Fisher
Light / Dark
I’ve never been big on yard sales. But I happened upon one recently when my black Lab caught a whiff of something in a neighbor’s garage and insisted we take a look around. During a quick tour of assorted trinkets, I noticed a dusty old reproduction of a painting with “The First International Foursome” scribbled on a $4 price tag. I had an unsightly mark in my garage that needed covering, and, despite its shabby condition and faded color, I was amused by this depiction of four resplendently dressed golfers and a barefoot caddie in a kilt. The wooden frame alone was worth the asking price, so I tucked a $5 bill into my dog’s collar and told the owner my pup was keen to take it home.
When I got around to hanging it up, I discovered a handwritten description taped facedown on the back. The original painting, by Allan Stewart, was of a foursome in 1682 in which the Duke of York (later King James VII of Scotland) and his personal shoemaker took on two English noblemen. The match came about after the Duke and the Brits got into an argument over whether golf had been played as long in England as it had in Scotland. The Duke championed Scotland, quoting the Acts of the Scottish Parliament of 1457, which referenced the game. With similar evidence not forthcoming from the Englishmen, a match with stakes was proposed on Leith Links to decide the matter.
The Scots won, and the Duke generously split the winnings with his cobbler, John Patersone, who used the proceeds to build a house in the Canongate of Edinburgh. (The building later became known as “Golfer’s Land.”) King James VII placed a plaque, which included a coat of arms with an outstretched hand bearing a golf club and the motto “Far and Sure,” on the wall of the house.
All that history for four bucks and a dollar tip! Turns out my dog has a pretty good nose for a deal.
The timing of my purchase was no accident. I had recently become golf afflicted, having joined a nearby club in Los Angeles as a young member. Bel-Air Country Club is friendly and welcoming, but by American standards it’s a rather traditional club: walking encouraged, no shorts allowed, mobile phones frowned upon. Despite its formalities and customs, which I appreciated, I was still surprised to learn that I was to furnish the club with measurements for a custom blazer. Said jacket would henceforth hang in my locker, save for one day a year when it was to be worn at an annual members’ dinner. The idea of a blazer with a crest patch on the pocket and insignia-punched brass buttons may seem a bit much in the iPhone era, but then again this is a sport whose most famous prize is, in fact, a green jacket.
Indeed, golf has always been a particularly stylish game. And so, in addition to my playing addiction, I found myself quickly succumbing to a golf-fashion kick and digging deep into the sartorial side of the game.
Silk and lace
To appreciate golf’s evolving attire, one must first understand the state of the world—in particular that of Caledonia in the mid-1400s. By then, golf was already an established—and condemned—Scottish national pastime. It seems that, since its inception, golf has always served as a distraction from the work at hand. During the reign of King James II, in the 15th century, Scotland faced a constant threat of invasion by its powerful southern neighbor, England. In an effort to unite the citizenry in defense, James decreed that all men, and boys over the age of 12, were required to undertake military training on Sundays after church. Golf and other leisure games were viewed with suspicion as a waste of time and a dangerous hindrance.
“It is ordained and decried that the lords and barons both spiritual and temporal should organize archery displays four times in the year. And that football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped. And that a pair of targets should be made up at all parish churches and shooting should be practiced each Sunday.…And concerning football and golf, we ordain that [those found playing these games] be punished by the local barons and, failing them, by the King’s officers.”
—Scottish Acts of Parliament, 1457
The King’s decree, the first preserved mention of golf in writing, is still held dear by Scots as proof of birthing the game. But what of other evidence? Dutch paintings give a visual clue.
“Kolf,” meaning “club,” was a Dutch game dating to the late 1200s that involved clubbing a ball through towns and countryside until successfully sending it through a designated doorway and, later, hitting a pole in the ground. Scottish wool-traders returning from Holland are thought to have brought kolf back to the ports of Edinburgh and East Lothian, applying the stick-and-ball game to their dunes and changing the target from a pole above ground to a hole dug below.
The Dutch were masterful painters, and early art shows club-holding figures playing on ice all over Holland. But, looking closely at a few of these surviving paintings, one notices that several of these kolfers are dressed in kilts. And so it was that kolf and golf intermingled. Holland and Scotland both had busy ports, where the two countries’ business intersected—as did their recreation. Native poetry such as Van Chandelier’s playful “The Amsterdammer’s Winter” gives further credence to this narrative with its description of clubs made of Dutch and Scottish wood.
The kolfer ties his ice spurs on or finds something drought to stand on. Because slippery ice, if without snow; laughs and mocks smooth soles. And after the teams have been decided, standing surely, strikes his aspen Weighted, or his Scottish cleek of boxwood, three fingers wide, one thick With lead in it, the feather ball from the tee, invisible until its fall, Observed by ball spotters further kolfing toward an enclosed pole. Or strikes for the widest, strike after strike For silver, or boozy breath.
—Joannes Six Van Chandelier, 1650
Then, as now, golf (and kolf) was played in the cold. It required the assistance of heavy tartans, animal hides and potent booze. It also provided a great sense of occasion: Here was a game worth dressing up for. Portraiture of the time reveals astoundingly ornate kolf ensembles worn by the young sons of aristocrats. It’s unknowable how often or effectively these resplendent outfits of silk and lace were put to athletic use, but suffice it to say that appearance was valued as much as, if not more than, performance, a phenomenon that can be witnessed to this day at country clubs around the world.
Awash in scarlet
The early 18th century was a crucial period for the development of the modern game. The first golf clubs and societies were created and, as if they were equally weighted, their playing rules and sartorial guidelines established. Golf was known as the “auld Scots game,” but the men of old families who traditionally played it had also acquired a taste for fox hunting and stalking stag. Along with those pursuits came stylish dress. This was the dawn of the Regency period, when the hellfire and brimstone of traditional Presbyterian preaching gave way to the moral philosophy of compassion and chivalry. Lifestyles changed.
Golfing groups, which had up to then consisted only of men with a common interest in the game on local linksland, became properly constituted as clubs. While golf was the common denominator, a taste for claret, fine food, congenial company and the show of sporting metals also provided much of the impetus.
Thus, in 1744, the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith—now the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, based at Muirfield—became incorporated. Uniform rules of play were established. Uniform clothing became mandatory. Even today, nearly three centuries later, Muirfield’s official logo is of an ancient golfer addressing a ball while wearing a red captain’s jacket.
That jacket, which theretofore had signaled status as a military officer’s uniform, offered functional design benefits and was required to be worn by all club members during play. Its swallow-breasted “cutaway” design allowed for flexible movement without bunching at the waist, while still providing ample warmth. Much like the periwigs that adorned each member’s head, the jackets were entirely bespoke and individually commissioned. While the preferred hue was always red, the buttons and velvet collar allowed for variation and individual flair. Bernard Darwin, imminent historian of the game, knew those jackets well.
“When there walked into the clubhouse a gentleman in a bright Scarlet coat…his collar was of royal blue velvet and his gold buttons adorned with the insignia of that ancient and illustrious club. He not only wore his coat in the clubhouse but he went out to play his metal round in it and a splash of Scarlet on the green made people think how pleasant aside an old metal day must have been when it was every gentleman’s duty to appear in his club uniform.”
—Bernard Darwin, “Those Red Coat Days”
The jackets also served a practical purpose for non-golfers. As Connor T. Lewis, founder of the Society of Golf Historians, wrote to me, “You have to understand that all golf courses during the feathery era and even the majority of gutty era golf courses were ‘public’ land and as such, the red jackets served the purpose of being distinct enough to warn non-golfers to beware of flying orbs.” It has been documented that, during this era, a few unfortunate bystanders on the rare occasion even died from being hit by a ball.
Charles Lees’ famous painting The Golfers depicts the last full roar of Regent pageantry on the links of St. Andrews—a highfalutin carnival of rapturous suspense. Not unlike a fox chase on horseback, golf at this time was an occasion for the gilded class to see and be seen. Indeed, little about society golf and its attire could be considered casual. But that would soon change.
As the 19th century approached, the aristocratic player’s lifestyle would collide with the high morality of Victorian times. Golf at North Berwick, the picture that Sir Francis Grant painted to commemorate the founding of the famed Scottish club, is not the earliest-known golf painting. It is, however, the earliest that portrays a game recognizable to a modern-day player. Here is an image of golf as we know it today; the setting, as well as the mannerisms of the caddies and players, is instantly recognizable. The top hats and cravats may seem antiquated, but finally we see practical clothing one could move and stretch in.
The players depicted at North Berwick are composed of people who, individually and collectively, represent Scottish Regency society in its final decline. Golf would soon attract those on lower rungs of the social ladder to penetrate the walled garden of linksland clubs, with competitions and tournaments open to the public. The occasion would be commemorated with a unique article of clothing that rests squarely at the body’s midpoint, visible for all to see and admire.
Revolution in 4 inches
Some three weeks before Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States, the first contest for the Challenge Belt took place, on Oct. 17, 1860. There was no prize money and no commissioned trophy—just a victor’s belt made of red Morocco leather, decorated with golfing scenes embossed on silver. This belt was the same in every respect as prizefighting championship belts at the time. It cost 25 pounds, which was raised by members of the host club at Prestwick with the stipulation that if any competitor won the belt for three successive years, he would own it permanently. Players competed for the Challenge Belt 11 times between 1860 and 1870, when Young Tom Morris took possession of it after his third consecutive victory. By that point, this annual gathering of the best was recognized as the Open Championship.
Around this time, the traditional red captain’s jacket gave way to the Norfolk jacket, named after the county in which King Edward VII spent his time hunting with his friends in the late 19th century. Designed as a shooting coat that did not block the elbow when the arm was raised to fire, the Norfolk jacket used a new “performance” fabric: tweed. The cut used less cloth than the traditional cutaway, rendering it lighter and more agile. It incorporated an intricate pattern of folds and pleats under the shoulder and made use of a half-belt around the back that helped retain elegant lines throughout the swing. While the captain’s jacket was commissioned for the honorable, the Norfolk was made for the everyman.
The bottom half of this evolving new ensemble was a pair of knickerbockers, whose knee-length reach was designed to easily cut through the briar patch in pursuit of fowl. Originally going back to 18th-century France, culottes or knee britches were a massive fashion craze among the noble class. As former Esquire editor-in-chief Jay Fielden once pointed out, “What breasts were to the corset, calves were to short pants.” Golfers took note.
In Britain, the heavy tweed fabrics of britches put up a good defense against the windswept hunting tracks. Eventually, those wielding niblicks and gutties came up with their own version of knickers: plus fours. With their billowy, bell-shaped legs, these oddly cool-looking precursors to shorts gracefully hung 4 inches below the knee.
This was the look first popularized by Harry Vardon, the legend of Bailiwick, who initially took to wearing plus twos (extending just 2 inches below the knee). At the time, only children wore short pants, and Vardon was snickered at by the competition. But plus twos saved him the trouble of cleaning his kit in Scotland and England, where rain and mud often came into play.
Soon knickers took root in the U.S., with leading players Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen adopting them, and plus fours became the look of early American golf. Golf became part of the average American’s consciousness in the 1890s, when the game burst into fashion as a pursuit of the middle class. With its increasing availability in city parks, golf also appealed to an emerging business-class culture.
Esquire’s Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men’s Fashions states that “in the summer of 1928, the fashion press equated smart clothes with lower scores,” pointing out that “the golfer who turned in the best scores in the national open championship that year was the best dressed man who entered in the tournament.” While no one is reported to have played in a jacket that year, a new look had emerged to take its place: the pull-over sweater, with its combination of give and good looks sending golf attire further in favor of function over formality.
Like all fashion moments, this one came with a celebrity influencer—Edward, Prince of Wales—who understood that nothing can have true status without heritage. Thus, the Duke of Windsor took to playing golf wearing oversized V-neck wool sweaters that he first spotted while sailing around islands north of the Scottish mainland. Soaked in linseed oil, which protected against water and wind, these hand-knit sweaters boasted an interlocking diamond design that the Duke claimed had been passed down from Spanish sailors stranded by the Armada’s defeat in 1588.
Fair Isle sweaters became de rigueur golf wear in part because the Prince of Wales was the most photographed man in the world. Here was a would-be king dressing casually (gasp!) in sportswear. And so tweed gave way to sweaters and flannels. Shirts were designed with an athletic purpose in mind, like the short-sleeved “polo” that René Lacoste unveiled on a tennis court in 1926.
The very concept of sportswear has always been rooted in a fabric’s ability to perform while looking sharp. And since the inception of golf, the style in which one plays the game has often mattered just as much as the score. Menswear has and always will be found at the intersection of fashion, sports and tailoring. It’s a trend that has been playing out over the last 600 years.
Back in my garage, I glanced up at the ratty print my dog and I bought. The Duke addresses his ball in a powdered wig, wearing a heavy wool coat and silk breeches with a linen cravat cinched around his neck. Not the easiest rig to wear through a round. Meanwhile, I was kicked up on my couch, wearing my typical stretch-fabric pants and soft-collar cotton polo that is so comfortable it’s confusing—the latest pinnacle in apparel. Yet perhaps the Duke would have felt the same of his performance gear. I scratched my pup behind his ears and tipped my cap to the Duke and other ancients who kitted up before me. Onwards, far and sure.