Evening wear can be subtle and understated, or peacock proud. Which will it be for the hunt ball?
Evening wear has always been a simple affair for men. Black tie doesn’t involve a constant quizzical round of questions – short or long? Jewels or paste? Black tie means just that for the fortunate male, who often pulls out Uncle Bill’s best from the wardrobe and heads off to the highlife without a backward glance.
That is why there are so many ill-fitting jackets, cummerbunds and trousers on the loose at the hunt ball. But evening wear is changing, and with it the tendency to peacock remains strong.
It can be trying for gentlemen of a traditional or less imaginative bent (stick to tails). But for those who like to cut a swathe in the style stakes as well as on the floor then smoking jackets, red dinner jackets, embroidered numbers with nehru collars, the flash of a jazzy shoe or the hint of something midnight blue are fair game. And delightful if worn well.
WHITE TIE AND TAILS
Informality may be rife, the tie pursuing the hat and gloves into virtual extinction, but the countryman will always look best in his bib and tucker. It is standard requirement for grand shooting house parties, balls and livery company dinners, and camouflages the less than perfect figure with ease. It can lengthen the leg, cinch the torso and cut a dash that will snare even the flightiest of birds.
The tailless coat started to appear in the 1830s but had to be taken up by a man of fashion to become universally acceptable. Even Edward VII balked at wearing one at Windsor, and George V refused to wear it in front of guests. But the Prince of Wales, the future Duke of Windsor, regularly donned this shorter style. When he wore his midnight blue barathea, shawl-collared jacket and soft-collared shirt the world followed suit.
He was also the progenitor of the backless waistcoat – a much cooler alternative for the nightclub.
“It’s a fashion thing,” says Richard Fuller of Bernard Weatherill. “About nine out of 10 dinner jackets we sell are single-breasted now.” A ready-to-wear dinner suit starts at £4,250.
Johnny Allen of Huntsman, says: “The classic one button, single lapel with corded silk (grosgrain) facing in black barathea is timeless and elegant.” The starting price for ready to wear is £1,575. “Single-breasted jackets are fashionable with peaked lapels and our shawl collars are made wide, about 31⁄2in to 4in.
AVOID LOOKING LIKE A WAITER
A 2in collar can confuse one with the waiter,” says Kristian Robson of Oliver Brown. “Although we do sell more of the classic double-breasted dinner jacket than anything else.” The shawl collar, inherited from the smoking jacket, suits only a soft shirt collar. Peaked lapels, a direct descendent of the tailcoat, are correctly paired with a detachable wing collar, but turndowns are now commonly worn. The waistband should be covered so the traditional shawl-collared waistcoat or cummerbund – with folds always pointing upwards – can be worn, although the habit is falling into disuse. “We are one of the few companies left selling the evening waistcoat,” continues Robson.
All these sartorial rules are fruitless if the opportunity for donning formal dress after 6pm is rapidly dwindling. Suppers are now in the kitchen and only the grander house parties specify a dress code. But it is a licence to make the best of it when they do. Far from being bored by the rigours of a more formal invitation, well turned out chaps are delighted at the prospect.
“Men like dressing up,” says Beaufort fieldmaster Rupert Sturgis. “A navy smoking jacket with buff facings and brass buttons (the Beaufort colours) is perfect to wear in the evening. It is cut like a smoking or dinner jacket and was very popular with the older generation.” The Connaught Square Squirrel Hunt sports stylish midnight blue velvet coats with shocking pink silk lining and they are used as dinner jackets when appropriate.
SMOKING JACKETS AS EVENING WEAR
The traditional evening jacket is frogged, sometimes quilted and anything but plain. The smoking jacket and velvet dinner jacket are now roundly accepted at house parties, cocktail parties and shooting parties – the lodge a last bastion of the Edwardian dressing tradition.
It is now a form of rural black tie, worn with no tie, silk shirt, dress trousers and slippers. Artist and sportsman Will Garfit sports a fabulous cinnamon brown velvet jacket with brown silk facings and yellow gold frogging that belonged to his Dragoon officer grandfather. “It makes its rare appearances at only very special shooting parties,” he says. “But is an enormous pleasure to wear.” It is more comfortable and adaptable than a dinner jacket.
“The velvet jacket is increasingly popular,” says Robson. “We make our own silk velvet in seven colours. I warn people that it will look like a rag until it is on, but it is fantastic, although it wears more than cotton velvet.” In the latter, Oliver Brown offers countless shades.
“There are so many options. Frogging and facing, even quilting or just plain. People do come in with ones they’ve bought on Portobello Road for us to refresh. My navy smoking jacket has three rows of braid, pink lining, frogging and facing and is a superb conversation starter.” A bespoke version from Huntsman starts at £3,800.
HIGHLAND EVENING DRESS? TARTAN TREWS
Velvet slippers make a dashing accompaniment when dressing for dinner. The Drummond evening slipper in grey or burgundy brushed velvet from Fin’s is bound to cut a dash on a rural foot, at £175. A suede version is elegant in town. Oliver Brown has myriad designs starting at £95.
Tartan trousers are also a welcome addition to the house party or lodge dinner, perfect with a smoking jacket. A well-placed northern source, cautions: “Tartan trews are tighter fitting than tartan trousers, with a more military cut. Neither should be worn with a morning coat, but they do offer a less ostentatious alternative to the kilt when south of the Highlands.”
The cost of bespeaking the full fig can be daunting. However, acquiring standard issue white tie requires little more than a generous (similarly sized) relative, or the kit-hunter’s nose for a country auction or well-stocked dress agency. Addresses and hunting grounds are jealously guarded.
Savile Row agrees that the rot has set in. Johnny Allen of Huntsman admits that making bespoke tailcoats is “a very rare experience, perhaps for a few ambassadors and some conductors”. John Ramsden of Ede & Ravenscroft in Oxford confirms it deals mostly in dinner suits, not tailcoats – and if wafting round the dreaming spires is no longer an excuse for a new piece of evening kit then we are facing a decline. Elegant tailcoats percolate through generations but can present problems.
DRESSING FOR THE HUNT BALL
The Twenties and Thirties heyday left a great clothing legacy but, “the men were shorter, the tails were longer and the trousers much higher,” says Fuller. “A newer coat will be cut in line with the natural waistline, so the coat is longer and the tails shorter and it is more in proportion.” Falling waistlines coupled with old tailcoats present a problem – how best to bridge the gap.
Some hang on to the Regency trend for longer waistcoats and maintain that tradition is on their side. Others curse at the sight of a couple of inches of white. Military and bespoke tailor Geoffrey Golding says: “The trousers are high-waisted, with two sets of braid each side of the trouser. The waistcoat should not show below the front of the jacket.” A bespoke two-piece from GD Golding is £1,585. “Trousers long enough to match the older tails are hard to find without going bespoke,” Fuller admits.
Elegant individuals still stalk the streets of London en route to livery company dinners in full fig and flowing cape, and Lincoln’s Inn keeps a close eye on the tradition.
The Caledonian Ball upholds rigorous standards and Court dress still involves top smarts but it is the jolliest hunt balls that uphold the line most vigorously. The explosion of colourful tails is delightfully tribal. Collars and facings may be velvet or corded silk and some hunts specify waistcoat colour.
A scarlet coat with pale blue silk facings marks you as a Quorn thruster. A white waistcoat and scarlet coat sees you south of the Thames, whereas the distinctive blue with buff facings means you’re in Beaufort country. Fuller reveals: “At Weatherill’s we have a tatty old book which is known as ‘The Bible’. It contains the facings and collar colours of all the hunt evening tail coats we have made over the years.” They start at £3,200. Oliver Brown‘s hunt tails start at £495.
“I will wear my hunt tails at our own hunt ball but tend to wear black tie when I’m visiting other packs” says occasional Warwickshire fieldmaster Henry Jackson. “I wear my grandfather’s tails but it is difficult finding white-tie shirts and waistcoats as only a few places stock them.”
An elegantly dressed sportsman from Border country was recently gifted a pair of hunt tails from a gentleman retiring from the ball scene. “If you have them then you should wear them,” he says.
REGIMENTAL EVENING WEAR
Wearing mess kit at civilian events is a point of contention, although most agree that the younger (and footloose) blade is more likely to don finery. Military tailor Golding sensibly refuses to be drawn on which regiment displays the most resplendent kit.
“There is no deviation from pattern,” he says. “The mess kits are made to a design and they are all very smart.” The cavalry units do seem to have the upper hand. “Of course each regiment thinks their own kit is by far the smartest,” says an ex-Life Guard, “and generally the Household Divisions steal a march.”
“Hmm…Dragoon regiments definitely have an edge,” says an ex-Lancer. “They have more braiding.” The jury is out but whichever regimental beast you find yourself standing next to it is quite likely that you will start to feel like a peahen in comparison to these peacocks.
Whatever dash you choose to cut you would do best to bear in mind this sage advice: “The right choice is the equivalent of the twinkle in your eye… just make sure it doesn’t turn into a wink.”