I have always prided myself on knowing exactly what to wear even in the most intimidating sartorial situations: dinner at Karl Lagerfeld’s when I was a fashion editor for Harper's Bazaar, Diana Vreeland’s memorial service, lunch with Calvin Klein, cocktails with Princess Diana, a black-tie ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute when I was nine months pregnant. But dressing well on the golf course has not been so easy.
First, there are dress codes to navigate. I’ve noticed, for example, that some of the most established clubs, such as the august Maidstone in East Hampton, New York, seem rather loose with their dress codes: Ladies show up here chic and sexy in hot pants and short-short skirts. Meanwhile, at the much more low-key Gardiner’s Bay Country Club on Shelter Island, things are more precise. During my first summer as a junior member there, I was busted by Bob DeStefano, the otherwise affable golf pro, for wearing a Lilly Pulitzer skort that allegedly fell higher on my thighs than the club’s six-inches-above-the-knee rule allowed for.
It was a blistering July day and I’d been practicing on the putting green just outside the main dining room, waiting for my husband to finish up his 18 holes. DeStefano approached me, looking slightly uncomfortable, and confessed that he had been cornered by some disgruntled older members who had witnessed my supposed breach of hem-length decorum. My first impulse was to laugh. Bob DeStefano, the fashion police? My next inclination was to run to the parking lot and hide inside my car, which is exactly what I did.
The following Monday back in Manhattan, Brooks Brothers beckoned. I raced inside, bought the most inoffensive knee-length tan shorts known to womankind—one size too big. While dressing for golf the next weekend, my husband made very clear that though I may have been on track with the club’s rules, I was now guilty of a serious marital infraction: Deemed ugly, my safe shorts were banished. In one week I’d swung the full distance, from too girlish to too boyish, too scant to too covered. My stopgap measure was to purchase a few po- litely lined knee-length Lilly Pulitzer skirts and have them tailored into a slightly more modern shape.
Why has it been so difficult for so long for otherwise well-dressed women to look right when playing golf?
It is a traditional and tricky sport. The perfect golf clothes work with your game and look like they belong on the course. They also take you from tee time to lunch or cocktails at the club. Golf is sporty, not sweaty.
The right golf clothes must possess pockets: Having an extra tee or ball on you is essential to keeping the game moving and not making husbands—or the foursome behind you—huffy. They must also allow you a good, clean view of your hands and wrists, nothing floppy or thick. Pants are belted, shirts collared.
That Ralph Lauren, the man who first made American sportsmanship chic, understands all this is not surprising. Lauren launched a line of golfwear some years ago and his greatly expanded spring collection is elegantly done with cottons and cashmeres in creamy whites, chocolate brown, navy. The clothes happen to be highly functional and practical as well. My favorite is a pair of new golf shorts—with pockets—engineered with a length-adjustable side tab so it can be worn supershort at the Maidstone and medium-long for DeStefano.
Remember, the grassy green is your canvas. Think pink, navy, argyle, and plaid. I’ve seen pictures of my mother-in-law playing in the late sixties wearing wide camel trousers with a red cashmere turtleneck, a delicious autumnal mix. (That she and her friends had their pal, Gianmaria Buccellati, make jewelry just for golf is another story.) Garish combinations of colors you would never consider wearing in any other context work beautifully. And yet, black, the color that most people think is okay in every context, does not work here. It looks sad, drab, wrong. Black and white is also bad—like you’re trying too hard. Royal blue is always hideous. Navy and white says nautical, which is fine, but this can be immediately improved if you instead pair the navy with cream, vanilla, tan, or anything off-white.
Burberry gets the whimsy of golf color, and for next season it is offering pretty skirts, capris, and trousers in lots of plaids and primary colors. Lacoste is my main source for bright sleeveless and long- and short-sleeved polo shirts as well as cashmere turtlenecks for chillier weather. Note: The turtleneck is the sport’s only acceptable collarless shirt.
In my book PGA stands for Perfect Golf Accessories. Eccentric oversize white sunglasses, a heavy coat of lipstick, and a visored cotton hat block the sun and add an essential element of glamour. But in golf, as in a woman’s real life, shoes and bags are the big statements. If you are 18, 22, or 25 years old, wearing sneakerlike Nike or Adidas golf shoes is perfectly appropriate. After a certain age, however, adults should stick to stiffly supportive leather shoes. I am the lucky owner of Ralph Lauren’s benchmade tan-and-white saddle shoes with a fringed leather kiltie on top. Sadly enough these are no longer produced. The perfect solution, if you can swallow the investment, is John Lobb’s bespoke golf shoes for men and women, which can last up to 15 years (the cost is about $6,000 and the lead time is eight to 12 months, with three to four fittings in New York). Otherwise, Burberry has a very solid pink-and-white style that looks great, though it might strike some as more fashion than function. A good national chain like Golfsmith (golfsmith.com) stocks pairs such as the side-buckle Ecco ($140) along with custom-order saddle shoes. As for gloves and socks, they cannot be too colorful and, yes, the pom-pom on the back is essential; it is deliciously retro and the oldest and most effective way to prevent socks from slipping off your heel and into your shoes, avoiding the resulting blisters.
The golf bag is your pièce de résistance. It must be easy to find in the club’s storeroom, somehow represent your personality, and not be mistaken for another golfer’s. Many seasoned players keep one set at their principal club and another at home, ready for travel. In the latter case I’d advise buying the practical, if indistinctive, black nylon golf case, available at every pro shop in the country.
To me, the ne plus ultra of golf bags is the Louis Vuitton canvas monogram ($8,250). I dream about one day having my initials emblazoned on its side in Vuitton’s signature golden-yellow paint. Since my dream LV bag isn’t yet an option, I’m using a trim Calloway that came with my beginner clubs and holding out for my mother-in-law’s stunning turquoise leather bag from the early seventies—it’s rumored that she’ll soon be sending it my way. This is one case where rummaging through your great-auntie’s attic might just turn up something great. Missoni picked up on golf’s vintage potential: This season the Italian house put its sixties-inspired signature print on a golf bag trimmed in pink leather.
The trickiest thing about this sport is that getting the right look isn’t a matter of having the most money, time, best taste, or greatest access. It’s about acquiring the right pieces over years of playing. Anyone who has ever taken a golf lesson understands how beguilingly difficult it can be to perfect a swing. Looking right on the course is equally, and surprisingly, complicated—no insta-swing, no insta-look.
When all else fails throw on a cable-knit cashmere crewneck—it is golf’s equivalent to the little black dress. Our 2006 club champion, a mother of six who looks and moves like a teenager, wore one in oatmeal cashmere during her entire 36 holes of final play. Come to think of it, maybe that’s her secret.