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Kiltie-Aversion & Conformity — from the Man Whom Clothes Never Made

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.

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Straight Generational Dope: Strauss, Howe, Draper, Pirsig & my Dad

Harold Gardner Phillips Jr. and Lucy Dickinson Phillips at a Manhattan terrace soirée, circa 1969.

I try to write about my dad each August because it was at the end of that month, six  years ago, that he left this mortal coil, all too soon. For most of his 74 years, my dad recognized himself as a Tweener, someone who didn’t belong to a specific or at least any commonly recognizable generation. For example, consider the Baby Boomers, who comprise the cohort that took shape once World War II had concluded, when my dad was already 9 years old. The parents of Boomers were, of course, the folks who fought The Big One as young men. So my dad arrived on this mortal coil in between these two sharp-elbowed generations. So did my mother. So did all the parents I knew growing up. Their kids (my cohort) were similarly “tweened” by our Boomer elders — the largest, most consumptive, coddled and self-indulgent generation America has yet produced — and their children, known as Xers. In many ways, these populous and impetuous Boomers overtook my dad’s generation, while his son (i.e., me) has lived all his days in their voracious shadow.

William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of “Generations: A History of America’s Future, 1584-2069”, would quibble with “Tweener”. They do classify my dad as a member of a distinct cohort, the Silent Generation, or those born 1923 to 1942. These Americans, unlike members of the preceding G.I. Generation (1901-1924), were born too late to participate in WWII. Yet most Silent citizens came into sentience during the war, were hugely affected by it, as children, and developed a lasting respect for the way their  G.I. elders rose to that occasion (and subsequently shaped the post-war world). All this influenced the way my dad, mom and other Silents saw the world, their country, their child-rearing and educational habits, their roles in the public square. Silents were again buffeted by forces outside their own generation when Boomers, the sons and daughters of G.I. folk, overturned then rerouted the culture in the 1960s, by which time my parents were married with three kids.

They didn’t invent it but Strauss and Howe were the first to map this generational theory onto American history. It’s complicated but fascinating stuff (see a more thorough summary of its tenets here). S&H postulate that there are four distinct types of generations — Civic (G.I.s, for example), Adaptive (Silent), Idealist (Boom), Reactive (Thirteenth, my own generation) — that cycle in the same order throughout U.S. History, going back to the Puritans (who, if you think about it, are the offspring of some ongoing English generational cycle). Before reading this book, I’d never encountered history told quite this way. It feels a bit pop-psychological at times but the patterns do fit together with remarkable logic, precision and predictability.

My dad in the mid-1970s.

Though “Generations” was published in the early 1990s, my dad never read it. Didn’t know about it all, though it’s exactly the sort of thing he liked to read the last 20-30 years of his life (then pass to me when he was done). In the six years he’s been gone now, I’ve had the urge to discuss with him hundreds, maybe thousands of things. This seems to me the most striking and unchanging aspect of his death — the fact that I still instinctively think of matters to discuss with him but cannot.

Strauss and Howe struck a chord with me because if there are four distinct generations of Americans alive at any one time (they refer to these groupings as “constellations”), then my longtime complaints about being sandwiched between Boomers and their children in Generation X are not outlying but grounded in a kind of understandable framework. What’s more, this sandwiching has been going on forever. My mom and dad dealt with a variation on this theme: They led their Adaptive/Silent lives between one highly successful Civic generation (which won us the biggest war ever and presided over the largest economic expansion in the history of mankind) and their Idealist kids, the Boomers.

This dynamic has not changed the way I think of Boomers, ultimately a feckless lot of shallow, navel-gazing spiritualists. But it did change the way I think of modern U.S. history, my dad and the 1970s.

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