Dress Codes: Why do clubs have them?

Richard Penley-Martin, secretary of Ganton, explains why he thinks they have their place

There aren’t too many clubs more traditional than Ganton. The championship course can look back on more than 125 years of golfing history. The great Harry Vardon won the first three of his six Open titles while professional at the North Yorkshire club.

Ganton have held a triple crown of Ryder Cup, Walker Cup and Curtis Cup and the tough blend of links and heathland is still a perennial host of many of golf’s top amateur competitions.

The private members’ club employs a dress code and both visitors and members are told exactly what’s expected – and acceptable – through the Ganton website.

The general principle is that the “best of golf standards” are conformed to both on and off the course.

Specifically, while smart causal golf wear is acceptable, jacket and tie must be worn in the Vardon Room at all times and in the dining room after 10.30am.

While many clubs are starting to loosen their dress codes, in a bid to become more accessible, Ganton have stood firm and their members recently turned down the chance to introduce ‘short socks’ into the regulations.

But why have a code at all? For secretary Richard Penley-Martin, it’s about being different.

“It differentiates us from everywhere else that has turned round and said ‘conventional wisdom says we should make ourselves more accessible and the way to do that is to get rid of the dress code’,” he explained.

“We try to hit the balance.  Obviously we have, like a lot of golf clubs, an ageing membership. We do have a bit of uniqueness in that we have a lot of farmers, who don’t normally wear jacket and tie and when they come to their golf club they actually like to dress up.

“The interesting thing that we found out recently, because we went through the thorny problem of ‘do we go to short socks’, was that it was the younger members who turned round and said they didn’t want it.

“It wasn’t the old guys who said ‘no, we want long socks and shorts’.

It was the 30, 40-somethings, who said that it differentiates us from other places and makes Ganton what it is.”

What does it matter what socks you wear? Critics of dress codes, including Denis Pugh, decry the answer of ‘standards’ – arguing those who use the term have already lost the argument.

Penley-Martin, though, believes it is about teaching youngsters how to behave and he says, through specific experience, that what happens when clubs relax their codes can sometimes create problems.

He added: “It goes down to teaching the youngsters standards – because you tell people ‘this is smart and you won’t offend people if you dress like this’. After that, people can go and do their own thing and if they want to wear bright shirts or plus fours

at least they have been taught a norm and they can take it from there.

“One of the issues I have when you dress down – and my previous club was a classic example of this is golf clubs have a complete range of people in them. I would say that probably applies to every single golf club.

“You might have your local plumber or your electrician, right the way up to multi-millionaire self-made business people and you have a range of what people might consider acceptable. “Unfortunately, this club made the decision to say ‘come in whatever you like. We’re still going to have one (dress code) for the golf course but, in the clubhouse, you can wear whatever you like’.

“The key is how you communicate it to people and how you deal with those who don’t meet the club’s aspirations.”

“What happened was that all the builders turned up, straight off the building site in their jeans with paint and plaster. Then you are putting the staff in a difficult position of saying ‘sorry, we don’t want you sitting on our nice furniture dressed like that’.”

Ultimately, Penley-Martin believes it’s not unreasonable when going somewhere of your own choice to follow the ‘rules of the house’.

The key, for him, is how you communicate that to people and how you deal with those who don’t meet the club’s aspirations. “The thing that upsets me when people get annoyed about a club’s dress code is that if I go to your house and I like to have a cigarette and you have a no smoking policy in your house, I don’t smoke in your house.

“I don’t say to you ‘why do you have that silly rule?’ I just say ‘I respect that that’s your choice’.

“It’s why it always amazes me when people come to a golf club, bearing in mind the policy on the website and that it’s probably been sent to them on email when they signed up as a visitor, and say ‘I don’t like your dress code’.

“Well, you knew that before you came. If you don’t like it, don’t come – as much as we’d be pleased to see you. Those are the rules of our house and we’d ask you to respect them.”

He added: “As it is with everything we do, and not just in our industry, communication is key. Tell people that this is your dress code. And I always use the word code, never dress rules or anything like this.

“We do take a pragmatic view to it, even here. Somebody might be in breach of the dress code but, if they are smart, you might say ‘thank you for coming, please be aware that this is our dress code.

What you’re currently wearing doesn’t comply but you’re very smart so we are very happy that, this time, we turn a blind eye. But next time you come can you please abide by it’.

“It’s just how you handle it. Sure, if someone comes in a pair of jeans with all the slashes across them then you are going to turn round and say ‘very sorry, but that’s not acceptable. Either you change or I’m afraid we are going to have to ask you to leave’.”

By Marie J. Taylor

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