A few years ago, a friend of my wife kindly invited me on one of his shooting days. It was an invitation that both lifted the spirits, as it is important to be liked by the friendship group of your other half, and filled me with dread. Not only was I indifferent to shooting, I was also a very poor shot. Yet I didn’t want to let said friend down, so if I wasn’t going to hit anything, I could at the very least make a show in the one thing I do know well, clothing. Or so I thought.
Given that the shoot was in Norfolk, I selected a sartorial gout de terroir – the Norfolk jacket. Not particularly well known but it is making something of a comeback. The Norfolk, with its bellows pockets and two vertical straps running across the front, is my idea of the perfect piece of country apparel.
For a while now, country clothing has been predictably plain; you get the impression the industry is perfectly happy creating clothing with the least imagination or romance possible. Upsettingly, owing to sartorial etiquette outside the M25, the ideal get-up is beaten, bloodied (literally) and worn to within an inch of its life. You can get away with wearing something new if it’s prosaic but anything remotely ostentatious and fresh off the peg goes down like a lead balloon.
Imagine the reception then, when I pottered up the M11, in my new garb that happened to be the namesake of the land on which we stood. What I thought of as a nifty piece of appropriate dressing was just regarded as shifty, and frankly, I was outed. I made an even more catastrophic error of cleaning my (apparently out of fashion) Hunter wellies as a gesture of courtesy. It was only when the only titled member of the shoot other than the host, sauntered into breakfast with a hole in his trouser leg large enough to see a mesh of black leg hairs and a silhouette of what I hope was a cartridge he kept in his boxers for good luck, that I knew I’d misread the brief.
It was a lesson worth learning: if you are fortunate enough to receive such an invitation, do your best to keep your outfit discreet but useful. There will need to be accessories that can hold cartridges, cigars, cash for the pub or tipping. It will need to be warm, so tweed garments above 13 oz will be what to look out for but that’s pretty standard if they don’t have that information to hand.
There is a debate about who is allowed to wear trousers rather than breeks, something to do with it only being the sovereign, which seems silly. Play it safe with breeks and match to the jacket or stick to brown or dark green, and boots cover the socks up so just make sure they are warm. For evening festivities, read the invitation carefully and if there is a dress code, stick to it, if it is fancy dress, take it seriously. Footwear should be Wellingtons, though for indoors, a brown Derby with a Norwegian welt, which gives any shoe the kind of elegance you’d usually associate with castle ramparts, but is great for the elements in case of a stroll in the rose garden.
Should you be completely stuck on where to begin, a few brands will make life easy for you without you feeling like you are out of your depth or trying too hard. William & Son is a favourite of mine for practically any situation, mainly backgammon and cashmere jumpers, but their country wear has emphasised the need for clothing that works in both the city and the country, with subtle checks but earthy colourings like heather and dark green. William Asprey, its founder is a keen shot and knows all too well the pitfalls for new shooters so has gone out of his way to help them integrate without any undue snobbery heading their way.
Same too can be said for Lucan but there is a bit more rebelliousness thrown in. The Countess of Lucan set up her eponymous brand because she was fed up with how boring and unsexy the clothing on shoots had become, and sees the unkempt look as a little disrespectful to the host. Her designs are fun, detailed and well proportioned, but with no compromise with materials or the practical needs of shooting. Naturally this covers both men and women.
The beauty of the above brands are that not everyone goes to the countryside to shoot. And their clothes will also work for those wanting to spend a day in the Cotswolds and not stick out. Corduroy is back with a fierce vengeance, and brands such as Drake’s are offering well priced but beautifully cut clothes in country tones, matching a purple cashmere jumper with a mustard corduroy trouser and tweed overcoat should be enough to pass off as a local, and there is great capital in that if you plan to return.
Prudence demands that when you are on someone else’s turf, you should comply with the customs and best practices, and while I’d never suggest rolling around in your flower bed before venturing out of town, do avail yourself of brands that will help you blend in, after all, discretion is the better part of valour.