My 40something dad, his kilties well and truly shorn, in the early 1980s

[Ed. I try to write about my father each August, the month wherein he left this mortal coil, all too soon, back in 2011. For additional essays in this memorial series, visit www.halphillips.net and search “dad” or  “Harold Gardner Phillips”.]

My father abided by few fashion trends and set even fewer, though here I’ll claim on his behalf one initiative to which he proved an early and canny adopter: He hated kilties. His aversion to those oddly fringed, seemingly vestigial, lace-obscuring flaps that for decades adorned all manner of golf shoes would prove well ahead of his time.

I was reminded of this rare fashion-forward response when my 20-something nephew visited at Christmas. Nathan graduated from college a few years back with a degree in fire-suppression engineering; the job he obtained in this field quickly bored him (what’s more, living in suburban D.C. was rapidly depleting his life force). So today he’s out West fighting forest fires with a crew of badass, axe-wielding Latinos. In any case, he arrived in Maine for the holidays wearing a pair of high-laced, black-leather firefighting boots that, to my surprise, featured small kilties down by their steel-tipped toes. If Dr. Martens made golf shoes, this is what they’d look like.

My nephew’s firefighting boots, complete with kilties

What’s with the kilties? I inquired.

“Is that what they’re called?” Nathan replied, before explaining that when one is tramping about the forest floor, these fringed swatches of leather prevent sticks, leaves, pine needles, mud and other bits of underbrush from lodging between one’s tongue and bootlaces.

In the mid-1970s, when I was first introduced to kilties (and to golf, for that matter), this description of their historical utility was never advanced, not to me anyway. I knew my dad didn’t care for them. Beyond that, they were more or less understood to be yet another whimsical affectation specific to golfing attire, along with Sansabelt slacks (from the French apparently: sans belt, get it?), bucket hats and peds.

As it happened, my dad and his cohort of 40-somethings spent much of the ‘70s dispatching with all manner of societal expectations. This helps explain why he looked so dimly upon kilties — and why, from my earliest recollection, he would immediately remove them from new golf shoes.

The evolution of golf shoe fashion is not a popular avenue of exploration, though it must said: Any research into the subject inevitably leads one down a rabbit hole of pleasingly arcane information. For example, it’s possible (quite logical to assume even) that kilties predate golf spikes in that evolution. Spikes emerged only in the mid-19th century when Scots started hammering nails through their boot soles in order to gain better purchase on dewy fescues.

Mid-19th century links were hardly the manicured landscapes we know today. At best they were meadows, managed lightly (and largely) by herds of sheep. The centuries prior featured even more rugged/primitive golfing environments. In short, during these early, less formalized days, anything that kept the prominent undergrowth from mucking up your shoes and bootlaces made a world of sense for both golfers and their caddies. So kilties did in fact, at one time (for quite a long time actually), serve a purpose.

Where does the name come from? That’s less clear.

Because the game was Scottish and Scots wore kilts, any shoes adorned with this style of fringe came to be known as kilties, though this applied mainly in the U.K. That’s one anecdotal view. Another has the term likely derived from the kilt itself, as a diminutive, these things being mini kilts of sorts – for one’s shoes. Another theory: The word derives from gillie, a Gaelic term for a man or boy who serves as a fishing or hunting attendant. Caddies served a similar purpose in golf, of course, and they’d be similarly interested in protecting their laced areas from twigs, mud and moisture.

It wasn’t until the 1890s, apparently, that purpose-developed metal spikes were actually screwed directly into the soles of “golf” shoes. These, it could be argued, were the very first purpose-built golf shoes, though said advance did not occur in a vacuum. Twenty years prior, the first “bucks” — hewn from Brazilian (sometimes Chinese) deer hide, or buckskin — were introduced to U.K. consumer markets. Often white (but sometimes tan, i.e. the “dirty buck”), they were first introduced for tennis use but were soon deployed more generally as athletic shoes. When Irish-American Humphrey O’Sullivan patented the vulcanized, red, rubber heel (Jan. 24, 1899), all the seminal golf shoe ingredients (including kilties) were in place.

The Saddle Oxford — wherein a dirty/tan piece of deer hide was stitched over the instep of a white buck — debuted in 1906, again with tennis in mind. But golfers would take to them in far greater numbers and thus a totemic style was born.

Not all early 20th century golf shoes were Saddle Oxfords. Many different styles came and went over the ensuing decades. There were further seminal innovations: In the 1960s, metal sockets with internal threads were first embedded in the shoe sole, allowing metal spikes to be replaced. But no matter what one might find on the uppers, or the soles, most every golf shoe style featured kilties through the 1970s.

•••

In many important ways, men tend to live their lives in response to their fathers’. In terms of couture, my dad was no exception: He rebelled against a fastidious father by not paying much attention to what he wore. My brother and I frankly dress pretty well — in response to our dad’s never giving much of a shit.

My paternal grandfather, the original Harold Gardner Phillips, whom we grandkids knew as Poppy, was indeed a well dressed man. Never a thread or hair out of place. This was a guy who, as a young man, taught bridge and dancing on luxury cruise ships.

My dad and his.

With this example, my dad came of age in the 1950s, a time when young men were expected to wear coats and ties pretty much all the time. High school, college, business school…  the uniform and the societal demands never wavered. Having transitioned to the working world early in the 1960s, my dad was obliged to stay in his lane and conform in myriad ways, dress included.

Come 1973, my dad left the corporate world for good and bought a plastics manufacturing plant with a partner. He never wore a tie to work again.

After 40 years in a variety of monkey suits, he came to revel in his particular form of casual dress: flannel shirts and hiking boots complemented by a variety of khakis and corduroys. I remember a particular belt-buckle he came by at this time of transition: an almost psychedelic swirl of metal that clasped a belt bigger and fatter than any he’d owned before. That buckle was perhaps the most mod thing the man ever owned.

Jeans? I would buy him his first-ever pair later, in the early 2000s, and he did take to them. In the mid-1970s, however, they were an insouciance too far.

Harold Gardner Phillips, Jr. was a member of the Silent Generation, born 1923-1940, a cohort of Americans who grew up idolizing the Greatest Generation — their immediate elders in the culture who fought and won WWII before returning home to create a post-war American hegemon. Silents would come of age and soon encounter the Baby Boom generation, the precocious, outsized, some would argue “entitled” sons and daughters of this G.I. cohort. By the early 1970s, the young Boom had already exerted undue influence on the culture at large. Silents like my dad were raised to conform, but huge chunks of that imperative would fall away during the ‘70s as middle-aged folk started dressing down, doing drugs, getting divorced (in record numbers), embracing things like E.S.T. and generally buying into their own form of Boomer-inspired counter-culturalism. 

Wearing flannel shirts every day might seem pretty tame when it comes to non-conformity, but my dad was raised by a pair of highly assimilated haute bourgeois Jews. For him, flannel shirts were in fact quite a statement. He would develop an abiding affection for them. If one were ever unsure what to gift him, “flannel shirt” never disappointed. Upon his death, he had so many in his closet that my wife, Sharon, grabbed an armful and made lap quilts from them, one for his wife and each of his three children.

“I still think that most men look better in a suit and tie,” my mom, Lucy Dickinson Phillips, recalls, “so I was disappointed when he went so casual – I mean, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, though we did have disagreements a few times when he wanted to be more casual and I wanted him to be better dressed.”

My mother was always trying to get him to roll up his sleeves, too. The possessor of perfectly muscular forearms, he had nothing to hide… But he never would. “That was a funny thing,” she recalls. “That was something Poppy never did either. Being in your shirtsleeves and rolling them up was, at some stage, considered very working class, I suppose. It became something very preppy but daddy never absorbed that.”

Rebellion has its limits.

Indeed, on balance, my dad’s long, ambivalent relationship with conformity never seriously wavered when it came to golf, either. Always long pants. Always a collared shirt. Always invite the group to play with you (and always accept such an invitation). The man never over-casualized on the golf course and he expected the same from his first proper golfing pupil: me.

But he did buck the establishment in one specific way: He found kilties fussy and foppish. He would remove them the moment he bought new golf shoes — this during a time when kilties were still very much in fashion.

Though it took the golf world nearly a century to figure it out, kilties in the modern golfing context are in fact ridiculous. Still, I was mystified by his behavior at the time. And true to intergenerational form, when my dad cut off his kilties, I — as a young man destined to live my life in response to his — left them in place.

My grandfather and me

•••

None of my dad’s fashion decisions had any larger effects on American golfing culture. Kilties would slowly fade away on their own accord, starting in the late 1980s.

At home, when my dad went casual during the 1970s, I went determinedly in the opposite direction. The larger culture contributed to this rebellion: I came of age in suburban Boston during the early 1980s — Ground Zero for the preppy movement. When I brought my brown FootJoy Classics to college in the fall of 1982, their kilties remained very much in place.

Remember the movie Diner? The lead characters in that fine Barry Levinson-directed film were templates for what I wore at college, throughout the 1980s frankly. And lucky for me, my dad never threw anything away. By following the rules all those years, he had accumulated during his young adult life what I considered a treasure trove of early-1960s-era suits, slacks, sport coats and thin ties — all of them utterly conformist when purchased, all perfect for his throwback-prep of a son.

Each time I came home from school, I would search his closet and abscond with new bits of clothing straight from the New Frontier. Long suitcoats? You bet. That ‘80s college fashion would eventually grow outside the bounds of period preps like myself. They were everywhere during the 1980s, as most everyone had a Silent father who kept one in his closet.

For much of my adult life, I wore pretty much the exact same size as my dad — and Poppy for that matter (I was married in one of the two shawl-collared tuxedos Pop passed down). Oftentimes I’d come home from college in some blazer and my mom would interject with something like, “Your dad wore that when we were courting!”

On some level, despite the fact that his own relationship with dress had been so tortured, I think he liked the fact that I had co-opted his old clothes. It drove home the point that some part of him was obviously capable of producing a human who cared about (and could execute) such things, even if, when given a choice, he couldn’t be bothered.

One time I snagged a dark-green tweed sport jacket with patches on the elbows. I still have it in my closet. Very Cambridge circa 1962. When I got to college and first wore it out, I discovered a 20-year-old pack of Salems in the breast pocket. Next time I was home, I playfully confronted him. I didn’t know you smoked back in the day. Menthols? Really?

“Oh, I never smoked,” he answered breezily. “Back then, men kept packs of cigarettes on hand to offer women at parties.”

In vetting this assertion with my mother, she confirmed the period etiquette — and then some: “He was wearing that jacket the night we met. He also had a sort of blue-green, leather-bound pipe that went with the coat. He made a very tweedy impression.”