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Vive Les Sansabelts! The once in-vogue trend of NOT wearing a belt deserves a vintage comeback

January 12, 2018

I was always going to wear the pants, no question about that. For four or five years now, I’ve been buying Sansabelts (from the French sans, “without”) on a website devoted to the beltless slack. And now I was on my way to a showroom in the heart of New York City’s Garment District to see the man who makes them.

Sansabelts, historically offered in colors plucked off a Froot Loops box, were a staple of the American golf scene in the 1970s, when I got trapped in the game’s web. Eventually, they were replaced by another look: baggy, pleated, belted chinos, in colors ranging from off-white to tan. The Sansabelt was endangered until Peter Schwadel, a second-generation New York garmento, brought the line back in 2013. I’ve been buying in bulk.

My wife was half-okay with it (I overstate) until I started ordering them for our still-in-college son. I will capture Christine’s objection by citing what Tom Watson said to me at the Masters last year: “How many polyesters did they kill to make those things?”

Schwadel, a white-haired gent wearing yellow-framed glasses and Sansabelt jeans when I saw him, waves his tanned hands when confronted with such snidery. “The American man wants comfort and ease,” Schwadel said. “Look how it drapes!” He was preaching to the converted.

Schwadel bought the rights to the Sansabelt name from Bud Ruby of Michigan City, Ind., who made them for decades. Ruby was on Utah Beach in France on D-Day and died four years ago at age 95. In between, he got Cary Middlecoff, Ed McMahon (Carson’s sidekick) and the Tour player Tom Shaw to wear Sansabelts. He sold millions of them.

Shaw would tell people that the “S” on the button of the patented Sansabelt waistband stood for Shaw. He fooled nobody. Shaw won four times on Tour, three times in Sansabelts. When Ben Hogan played in his final Tour event, in Houston in 1971, Shaw was in the group behind him. A reporter asked Hogan what he thought of Shaw’s pants. “They’re preposterous,” Hogan said.

Well, there’s no accounting for taste. Nancy Shaw met her future husband in 1975, at the Tour stop at Pleasant Valley, outside Boston. “He was wearing Glen plaid, blue-and-green hip-hugger, bell-bottom Sansabelts,” Nancy told me. They drew her in. “Tom put it out there.” All these years later, their son still wears Tom’s old Sansabelts — on Halloween.

Randy Erskine played in Sansabelts when I caddied for him in the 1979 Kemper Open (74-76, MC). The advantages were obvious: Tees and ball markers didn’t fall out of the rounded dungaree-style front top pockets when you squatted to read a putt. Plus, no belt.

The pant packed a certain je ne sais quoi. “I’m playing with Rex Caldwell in the ’79 PGA,” Jerry Pate once told Grantland. “Rex Caldwell had on tight white polyester Sansabelts with his balls hanging out, looking like a country-and-western rodeo rider.” From what I could tell, Sansabelts were favored by a range of icons from the era, beyond Sexy Rexy. I refer to Ben Crenshaw, Johnny Miller, Andy North, Tom Weiskopf, others. These gents were doing to belt sales what JFK did to the sale of hats.

Turns out, my understanding was a little off. North told me his beltless golf slacks were made for him by a tailor in Cincinnati, from all natural fibers. Weiskopf said the same. He employed the guy in Cincinnati, and had another in Dallas and a third in Los Angeles, whom he inherited from Ray Floyd. “God, no, I was not wearing Sansabelts,” Weiskopf said. The implication was clear: Sansabelts were for guys who did their own wash, often on Saturdays.

Our conversation moved on to the tiny, stylish triangular cutouts Weiskopf preferred on the bottom outer hem of his pant legs, what he called the “Bolt Slit,” for Tommy Bolt. We talked about modern Tour fashion. Weiskopf likes that Phil owns his own look. Bubba, too. He loves Jordan Spieth as a golfer but finds his wardrobe painfully dull. Then Weiskopf, as he can, went deep. “This subject you’re on, there’s a lot there,” he said. “The golf of my time was expressive. There were a lot of characters on Tour, a lot of individuality. You could see it in our swings. You could see it in our dress.” Even Tom Shaw’s.

I’m looking now at a vintage Sansabelt catalog that Peter Schwadel gave me. The tagline on the cover reads, “World’s most comfortable slacks — anywhere!” There’s a certain charm to the exclamation-marked redundancy. But it’s not just comfort, the wash-and-wear convenience and the drape that drew me back to the line. No, it’s the ease of going beltless through airport security. It’s the memory of the ’79 Kemper Open. It’s the fact that, well — they’re my own. So thank you, Tom Weiskopf. Thank you for getting that. Every Argyle sweater he wore, Weiskopf told me, was one of a kind.