Golf Through the Decades of the U.S. Women’s Open

Photo shows Babe Didrickson Zaharias. (Copyright unknown/Courtesy USGA Archives)

By Ashley Crain

 

Our cover model Lucy Li during the first round at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, North Carolina. She currently holds records as the youngest qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Open. Her stars and stripes ensemble is now on display at the USGA Museum in Liberty Comer, New Jersey. (USGA/John Mummert)

 

There’s something to the old adage, “Look good, feel good, play good,” and while this applies in sports across the gender board, in women’s sports, there is no truer statement.

When the first United States Women’s Open Golf Championship was played in 1946, competitors’ attire was – to say the least – less stylish and comfortable than the fashions we see today. Champion Patty Berg claimed that first trophy wearing a bulky sweater and long wool skirt. Surely, Ariya Jutanugarn was more at ease in the shorts and form-fitting stretch fabric she wore as she worked her way through the final round of the 2018 US Open, earning her second major championship.

Still, from early on, women golfers pushed boundaries of fashion, aiming to both look sharp and gain competitive advantage. And each year’s U.S. Open has been a showcase of both talent and the evolution of style.

With men away at war during the 1940s, women gained new opportunities in the world of sports (recall the film “A League of Their Own”). Newfound roles in sports found them struggling to balance fashion and femininity with athleticism:  The ankle-length skirts worn by early U.S. Open champions like Babe Zaharias and Mickey Wright weren’t designed to look particularly attractive or to make it easy maneuver 18 holes of golf, but these ladies approached the game with grace and determination. Thankfully, technology, trends and perceptions have progressed considerably.

The ’50s and ’60s saw considerable loosening of norms throughout the world of fashion. For golfing women, skirt lengths rose above the ankle, allowing players the ease of motion to swing more freely. Female players sported leather saddle shoes on the links. They fully embraced the old sports adage, “Look good, feel good, play good.”

Change accelerated throughout the ’60s, and hemlines continued to inch their way up. A new fashion choice emerged—the skort—that allowed women to bare their knees without fear of over-exposure. Bold colors emerged, and the view toward fashion became a bit more unisex. Women adopted flowy cotton shirt-dresses with no cinch at the waist. Some ditched the skirt altogether, favoring culottes or Bermuda shorts instead.

In the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open, France’s Catherine Lacoste, daughter of famous tennis player René Lacoste, became the first amateur champion, most often wearing knee-length shorts. (You may recall René as the founder of major golf apparel brand, Lacoste, which produced the first classic polo shirt—albeit for men.)

The ‘70s and ‘80s saw players like Hollis Stacy, three-time U.S. Open champion and World Golf Hall of Famer, further break with tradition by wearing pleated shorts, form-fitting pants and collared polos. Platform sneakers and color-coordinated outfits were the vogue of the era.

Still, no major athletic brands were making golf apparel for ladies. The few companies that did give nod to women were beholden to the process: take a man’s article of clothing, dye it pink and offer it in smaller sizes. “Pink it and shrink it,” or so they say.

Then, in the ’90s, at long last came Ralph Lauren and Ashworth, who created stylish women-centric golf apparel. Vibrant hues were out, and preppy was in. Pleated khaki shorts, paired with oversized polo shirts—that was the new look for women golfers.

Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam was dominant during the era, winning back-to-back U.S. Opens in ’95 and ’96. She would reign among the game’s elite for the next 15 years. Capitalizing on her success, she partnered with Cutter & Buck to launch her own golf clothing collection, known for its meticulous design and technical fabrics.

At the dawn of the new millennium, modesty was thrown out the window—the links had never been sexier. Ladies were showing a little more flavor and a lot more skin. But, as in past eras, changing styles were in part utilitarian; the 2000s and 2010s ushered in technically developed, breathable fabrics that promoted flexibility and made hot afternoons on the course more bearable. 2010 U.S. Open champion Paula Creamer became something of a fashion icon. Nicknamed the Pink Panther for her polished, impeccably matched—often all pink—outfits, she was (and still is) regularly featured in Golf Magazine for her stylish choices.

Then there’s golfing superstar and sports trendsetter Michelle Wie. She’s won numerous events, including the 2014 U.S. Open, but has earned acclaim as a golf fashionista, too. Just last year, Golf Magazine named her “Most Fashionable Woman in Golf.” When Wie stepped onto the course, she created another greenside shift: funky high-top shoes, extra tight shortshorts and collarless racer back tops. At last, it seemed, the female golfer was allowed the freedom to dress however she pleased.

Eventually, however, this freedom would be tested. In 2017, the LGPA adopted a new dress code that restricts skirt length (must be long enough to cover the “bottom area”), prohibits plunging necklines and requires collared shirts. In a statement to Golf Digest in July 2017, LPGA chief communications and tour operations officer Heather Daly-Donofrio said, “The dress code requires players to present themselves in a professional manner to reflect a positive image for the game.”

The dress code faced considerable backlash (even conservative news agencies’ headlines questioned if this constituted “body shaming”), but a professional dress code is not entirely unheard of in the golf world. The PGA Tour, after all, prohibits shorts of any kind.

The game of golf and its accompanying fashion trends are always evolving. Boundaries are tested, and sometimes trends emerge seemingly out of nowhere. Women’s tours and USGA major venues in particular are witnessing an onslaught of young talent. Recently, Lucy Li, the youngest amateur ever to qualify for a major event (the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open), dazzled the Pinehurst patrons with a star-spangled display of red, white, and blue—an outfit that currently resides at the USGA Museum.

As high-end design and streetwear continue to influence sportswear, another fashion transformation may be poised to break out at the next amateur tournament. One thing is for sure: we can expect the golf fashions of the future to be as bold and exciting as the talented women who play the game.

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