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Issues Forum #1
THE WHITES TRADITION
IS IT STILL GOOD FOR THE SPORT?


As tennis moved from country club to mass acceptance, its dress code progressively relaxed, but croquet has remained rigidly "white." At Wimbledon, Andre Aggasiz wears immaculate whites, but whenever whites are not required, he expresses his colorful self in styles that would have him banned from most croquet courts. Tennis players have set a new standard of satorial and personal style, on and off the courts.

Isn't it time we examined our all-white aesthetic to get in step with the times and with a new generation of potential players? Might it be past time to retire this rule, along with Aunt Emma's high-buttoned shoes and bustles? The price for holding fast to tradition for tradition's sake might be higher than we want to pay.

I raise the whites issue as an organizer and promoter of croquet. The image of the sport is an important part of publicizing it, of inviting people to explore it. Does a rigid whites rule serve the purpose of promoting the sport in the 1990's and beyond?

It's a small matter, you say? If it really is a small matter, why is such passion aroused on the court when somebody violates the code, even with the most reasonable of excuses?

Wearing all white to your croquet affair sends out a strong message. To many, the message is, "I'm a billionaire croquet player, and you're scum!"

Of course, if you're not at the croquet lawns, who knows how whites might appear to the uninitiated. To a woman who attacked me verbally on a busy sidewalk some years ago, my whites could have represented the uniform of a hospital orderly about to put her in restraints. Walking in front of me, she turned without warning and spat, "You're following me! Stop following me!"

Nurses don't wear whites any more, necessarily, and perhaps hospital orderlies have given them up by now as well, along with "sanitation engineers."

Response to my whites isn't always hostile; quite the contrary. Without my ever-so-patrician croquet mallet, I have been taken for a working man and have people totally at their social ease, allowing them to see me as an unthreatening social inferior.

I stopped by Orchard Supply Hardware not long ago to buy some long nails and washers for the corner boundary settings and was approached in one of the aisles by a professional-looking guy in a three-piece suit. "Can you tell me where the masking tape is?," he asked distractedly. "Aisle 12, on the end," I pointed, without skipping a beat, sending him on his way. No need to explain that I was a croquet player, not a hardware store clerk or a painter.

I'm willing to enjoy being thrust into these mini-costume dramas. When I wear my white safari hat, I can expect jocular comments about big game hunting: "Gonna bag a big one today, bwana?"

If you wear whites out on the streets, you are, indeed, on safari, amidst an infinitely variegated mass of undistinguished, ordinary beings. Some of them will chide you or even attack you. Others will razz you good-naturedly. You will stand out. You might come to enjoy the thrill of deliberately setting up such adventures; but if you're a timid soul, you will cover up your whites with an overcoat so as not to invite such encounters.

In an article for Croquet Magazine, Gail Arkley confessed, "Off the courts, when I felt particularly good, I would present a brazen, totally white glare to the non-croquet world (my job, the city streets) hoping it appeared a little outrageous to others, as it once did to me."

A professor from Australia visited our club and refused to wear whites for his three-month membership, for just this reason. He didn't want to parade through the streets in blazing white; he wanted to mix and merge. We had a conference with the president of the club and decided to allow the exception. He was Australian after all, and a professor, entitled to his eccentricities.

We weren't so sure about Dan, who lives in left wing liberal Berkeley and views whites as a symbol of class exclusion. He refuses to wear a white uniform, and at the same time has become one of the most valuable members, always helping out, taking on responsibilities, taking care of visitors, etc. There has been no formal exemption for him. He is an acknowledged "outlaw" with regard to this issue, he has gotten away with it, and he knows it. It's like an act of civil disobedience, highly principled. He does pay a social penalty, drawing the scorn of the more strait-laced members, but he's used to that - it's all part of the class struggle.

Dan's clash with a group of lawn bowlers in Berkeley has left its mark on him. Above all, he says most emphatically, he does not want to look like a lawn bowler. Maybe he has a point. The lawn bowlers are certainly declining in numbers in these parts, dying off without younger replacements. And we do look like lawn bowlers in our all-whites. let's face it. One of the comments addressed to me on the sidewalks has been, "Going out on the lawn to bowl, eh?" Friendly enough, but patronizing. Not one of my favorites.

Adding some color would mark a distinction between lawn bowlers ad croquet players. It would let people notice that we are on average a couple of decades younger than the bowlers, for one, and more tolerant of young ideas and expressions of individuality. On public lawns, especially, this expression of democracy is surely a good thing.

In a club that is among the youngest in the country, we still confront the doubts and prejudices of young fans. One 17-year old favored me with a truthful explanation of why he didn't pursue a sport for which, we both agreed, he showed great promise. "I have a social life, I'm interested in girls, and what would it look like? I wouldn't want to go around dressed like those old dorks in white."

That's not to say that white clothes alone are preventing a mass movement of youth towards croquet. But what is clear, at the very least, is that the whites rule stands as an a genuine impediment to the participation of younger players.

You can say that it shouldn't be so, that it's a petty matter, that if they're really interested it wouldn't be an obstacle...but that begs the question. Just think for a minute: Even YOU would have second thoughts about being required to dress in a way that your peers would consider "uncool." We've all been through that, forced in childhood by our mothers to wear the most atrociously embarrassing garb, and we hated it, didn't we?

And what does the extreme care one must take to keep white things white suggest about the sporting spirit? Is this a suitable attitude to carry into the practice of a sport? I haven't asked Jerry Rice about this, or Michael Jackson, but I would be very surprised to hear them say that they even think about, for a split second, what's going on with their clothes when they're in a competitive situation. They will be disciplined, rigorous, intentional, and superbly professional in doing what they have to do - but they're not going to be thinking about mussing their clothes.

I have an excellent reason or excuse, should I need one, for shunning the all-white costume - not quite a medical excuse, but almost as good. In the mid seventies, I indulged in a fad called "having your colors done" - a detailed analysis of the colors and color combinations that should be preferred and on the other hand avoided given one's hair and skin tone. The result is an impressive book with hundreds of color swatches and numerous specific advisements. One of mine is: "Avoid putting white next to your face." The explanation of my color consultant was, "It makes your skin look sallow."

"You're a summer person," she told me, and therefore required to avoid most strong and rich colors extremes, and to favor pastels. Even in their proper place, on the lawns, are we sending the right message with our whites? I still have an anonymous flier from the days when irate citizens tried to drive us out of the park, just for building a croquet lawn there. If not for the whites, and the image of exclusivity we presented, the flier might have been kinder and gentler. It was titled THE KU KLUX CROQUET:

"Prestigious is the way they dub
The San Francisco Croquet Club.
Needing some nice hide-away
For this mysterious game they play
These well-heeled gents in lily white
Decide Stern Grove's the ideal site."

Stern Grove was a public park. Almost anyone could join. But we looked much too exclusive.

What's your answer? What's your anecdote, and what are your proofs? Do you have a local solution that works and which you would recommend to others? Let us know. The next part of the ISSUES FORUM belongs to you, and it begins right here, in the next issue.

-BA


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