Uni Watch's Friday Flashback: When the links become the runway

Back when knickers were in style (2:48)

Uni Watch's Paul Lukas looks at how the attire in golf has changed over the last 50 years. (2:48)

The U.S. Open is now underway at Oakmont, which raises a good question: How have golfers' styles evolved over the years?

A great person to address that subject is Michael Trostel, director of the United States Golf Association Museum in Far Hills, New Jersey. Trostel recently made time in his schedule for a Uni Watch interview. Here's how it went:

Uni Watch: Some sports, especially baseball, have documented their visual histories all the way back to the 1800s. When we talk about golf fashion or golf clothing, how far back do we go?

Michael Trostel: Golf really got rooted in America in the late 1800s. So when we talk about golf's visual style, at least in the United States, we're talking about the pre-World War I era -- the late 1800s and early 1900s.

If you expand things and look at Scotland in the late 1800s, you had a lot of players wearing tweed jackets and waistcoats, knickers and ties. It was very formal.

And that's how a Scottish gentleman would have dressed in that era, whether he was playing golf or not, right?

Exactly. And then we started seeing some changes in the 1920s. The knickers became plus fours -- 4 inches longer than the normal knickers. You had knit ties. And cardigans instead of jackets, because they were easier to swing in. And then, especially with Walter Hagen, you'd see these two-tone spectator shoes. Hagen was more flamboyant and tended to wear louder colors. He was among the first to be known as a professional golfer -- he made his living by playing golf -- and his look was part of that.

Some others with distinctive styles in that era included Bobby Jones, who was known for his cashmere and wool sweaters -- kind of like Jay Gatsby. And then there was Johnny Farrell. He won the 1928 U.S. Open and the prize was $500. But on the eve of the championship, a clothing company named him "America's Best-Dressed Golfer," and for that he won $1,500. So dressing well actually made him more money than golfing did.

What about beyond the 1920s?

In the 1930s you started to see the plus fours replaced by trousers -- less formal, a bit more functional. And then in the 1940s and '50s you start to see short-sleeved knit shirts. Those were based on the LaCoste tennis shirts. You also see shorts around this time -- not for professional players, but more on the recreational level.

And then as you get into the 1960s and '70s, you see more colors, synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon, all of which just mirrored what was going on in the larger apparel world. Doug Sanders was known as "the Peacock of the Fairways" during this period, always matching his colorful shirts and his socks. Johnny Miller had his tight-fitting plaid pants -- kind of a forerunner of the Loudmouth pants that John Daly has made popular today.

The 1980s saw a return to something a little more traditional, and then in the 1990s you start seeing baggier shirts -- I remember that's what really stood out to me when I was watching golf in the 1990s, lots of ill-fitting, baggy shirts. Pleated gabardine pants. And this was when we also saw the first waterproof golf shoes, which were introduced in 1989.

More recently, in the 2000s and the current decade, you see the rise of performance golf apparel -- lighter, more moisture-wicking, stretch paneling. And now, very recently, more sneaker-like shoes.

The other thing we see now, of course, is that the golfers' outfits are "scripted" and announced in advance by the apparel companies like Nike and Under Armour. A lot of that is marketing, of course, but it does help showcase the fashions.

When was there the changeover from clothing that happened to be worn by golfers to clothing made specifically for golfers?

I would say that probably didn't really happen until the 1990s, and it didn't become the norm until the 2000s. That's when the players started wearing things that were designed to be functional, to allow for maximum golf performance.

So earlier golfers like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino were just wearing literally the same clothing anyone else could buy off the rack at Macy's?


How do you think today's players would perform if they had to wear golf attire from from 40, 60 or 80 years ago?

That's a good question. It's tough to say. I think if you went all the way back to the tweed jackets and ties, that's a little constricting. And for very hot weather, today's lightweight shirts with tech fabrics, which almost everyone now wears, are a lot easier to play in.

Almost everyone? There are some players who don't?

I'm can't think of any specific names, but you occasionally see a player wearing something like a Penguin shirt.

You mentioned LaCoste tennis shirts a minute ago. Golf is often closely associated with tennis, and tennis attire years ago used to be all white. Did golf also go through a white period?

Not really. There are periods where you see a lot of grays and beiges, but not really white. White might be having a moment, though -- Bubba Watson has worn all white, and over the past few years I've seen a lot of players wearing white pants.

Have we seen a greater diversity of clothing styles as the golfing community has gotten more diverse?

I think that's certainly correct. When Tiger Woods came along in the 1990s, for example, he definitely started to influence golf fashion. A lot more people were wearing black pants and red shirts on Sundays.

As golf has gotten more diverse -- not just racially, but also in terms of more women and more younger golfers, I think more and more golfers are looking to express themselves through golf fashion. So you see Rickie Fowler, who's not only known for wearing orange, for Oklahoma State, but he's now wearing high-top shoes and tapered pants. You have Ryo Ishikawa, who was really popular four or five years ago -- he was known for wearing really loud colors. Same thing for Ian Poulter.

It's very common to see golfers from all eras wearing some sort of headwear, whether it's a beret, or a baseball cap, or a visor, or whatever. Have golfers always worn headwear?

Yes. Not everyone wears it, but many golfers have. Early golfers would wear a bowler hat or a derby. Then you had driving caps, which Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan were known for. Payne Stewart wore them too, and Bryson DeChambeau, last year's U.S. amateur champ, wears that kind of cap to honor Ben Hogan. Sam Snead started with that kind of hat and then switched to the straw coconut hat. Greg Norman has also worn straw hats. And Chi-Chi Rodriguez wore Panama hats.

You've also seen bucket hats, and visors were very popular for a while. One of the most famous images of Arnold Palmer shows him throwing his visor after winning the 1960 U.S. Open. Jack Nicklaus wore a visor early in his career as well.

Of course, the baseball cap is the most popular kind of hat. And a big part of that is that it doesn't just shade the player from the sun -- it also brings in more money by serving as advertising.

Right, of course. Corporate branding and endorsement deals have had a big impact on the look of golf -- not just on hats, but on all sorts of clothing, and even things like belt buckles. When did that start?

Television was a big reason for an enormous growth in golf endorsements. One of the first to do it on clothing was Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship while wearing "Amana," the name of a kitchen appliance company, stenciled on his visor. It slowly grew in popularity throughout the 1970s and '80s and really took off in the '90s.

You've mentioned Payne Stewart and Bryson DeChambeau wearing old-school attire -- sort of the golf equivalent of a throwback uniform. Are there other golfers who've made a point of dressing in a way that honors a particular past era?

Payne is definitely the one who stands out. He also had a deal with the NFL, so even his retro clothing would be in team colors. So one day he'd be the Washington Redskins, the next day he'd be the Dallas Cowboys, and then on Sunday he'd usually wear the colors of the team closest to where the tournament was taking place.

Rickie Fowler actually honored Payne Stewart at the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where Payne probably had his most significant moment, winning the 1999 Open. So the first day, Rickie wore knickers, he wore argyle socks, and so on.

Sort of a throwback to Payne Stewart's throwback.

Exactly, yeah -- a double throwback.

We're doing this interview to coincide with the U.S. Open. Has the Open had its own particular look or style over the years, something that makes it distinct from other major tournaments?

Well, it is the national championship, and it also takes place right around Flag Day, so you tend to see a lot of red, white and blue or flag patterns.

Speaking of past eras, is there any period of golf where you look back at the photos and say to yourself, "My god, what were they thinking?"

Probably the 1970s and '80s, for the most part. You had those vibrant colors -- and some of those were nice -- but then you had the synthetic fabrics, the plaids, the bell bottoms.

And again, that's an example of how what we saw on the golf course just mirrored what we saw throughout the clothing and apparel world.

Yes, exactly.

I'm going to put you on the spot here: Who's your pick for the best-dressed, most stylish golfer of all time?

That's a tough call -- there have been many ...

Nope, not many, not several. Just one!

If you make me choose just one, I think I'd go with Bobby Jones. I love the look of that era, with the plus fours, the cashmere-wool sweaters, and he just epitomizes that era.

And at the other end of the spectrum, who's the worst-dressed golfer?

Probably John Daly. The pants that stand out just for the sake of standing out, without much thought going into it -- the whole look. It's interesting, but interesting isn't necessarily always a good thing.

What about you: How do you dress when you go out to golf? Do you try to channel your inner Bobby Jones?

Sometimes I'll think to myself, "Well, I played a really good round in that navy shirt, or those green shorts." So if I'm playing in a tournament, maybe that will be my go-to look.

Ah, so you're superstitious! That's something we hadn't talked about -- are there golfers who've been superstitious about their on-course attire?

Yes, definitely. In the 1962 U.S. Open -- which was at Oakmont, just like this year's Open -- Jack Nicklaus took the same iridescent olive slacks that he'd worn in the third and fourth rounds on Saturday and wore them again in the playoff round against Arnold Palmer on Sunday, because he'd had a good round. So he ironed them and wore them again the next day.

Wait a minute -- Jack Nicklaus ironed his own slacks?

He was 22 years old, and he had just turned professional the previous fall. He wasn't traveling on a private jet or anything like that. I think he and his wife, Barbara, and their newborn son were staying at a motel! So yes, he was ironing his own pants. Or maybe Barbara did it for him.

And it might be superstitious, but golf is, you know, a mental game. If you can convince yourself that you play better in a certain hat, or a certain shirt, and if that puts you in a state of mind where you can perform better, why not?

Would you like to nominate a uniform or uni element to be showcased in a future Friday Flashback installment? Send your suggestions here.

Paul Lukas wore a bowling shirt the first time he played golf, just to mix things up. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.