It is important to be comfortable and smart when riding to hounds. The Field guides you through sartorial hunting matters. Put your best breeches forward.
What to wear out hunting can be a thorny issue, literally. Taking on British weather and blackthorn hedges should not be done lightly – or at least in light clothes. It is certainly not advisable to go hunting in the buff, unless you are shooting a charity calendar or you are fortunate enough to wear the Beaufort hunt button and so sport the hunt’s famous “blue and buff” coat. So what should you be wearing on a hunting day?
Dress can cause heated disagreements. Martin Scott, guardian of hunting standards, cautions, “Never talk about it at a dinner party. It causes arguments.” The matter became further complicated around the time of the Hunting Act, when a cry went up to abandon the traditional colour and variety of hunting dress for fear that it inflamed “anti” feeling. Some hunts outlawed red coats, the Wynnstay (including the hunt staff), for example, now wear tweed and look very smart. The bill was passed, however, and a quantity of new hunters joined the fold, many of their number especially keen to embrace all hunting’s traditions.
The hunting fields of old were a glorious sight. I wonder whether so many people would attend the Boxing Day meet if we all turned up with quads and cagoules. Ladies riding side-saddle had almost been consigned to the showring until its resurgence was germinated on the hunting field by a brave and stylish few who delight in looking as pretty as a picture when crossing country. With this in mind, we are having a canter through hunting wardrobes to see what should be there.
Ratcatcher is a good place to start as we all begin the season with autumn hunting in tweed; it is also a safe option for anyone new to the sport. It is a workmanlike uniform and, mercifully on a hot September morning, lighter than a hunt coat. The “rules” for ratcatcher are less clearly defined than for other modes of dress. The tweed of your sports coat or hacking jacket offers a degree of self-expression and bolder styles seem to be becoming more fashionable. If it is not too warm to wear a waistcoat there is some latitude here, too, but a buff hunting waistcoat with brass buttons is most smart. Beneath these garments a hunting tie can be worn or a workmanlike shirt-and-tie combination, secured with a long, gold-coloured pin, which should by tradition be plain. Coloured and spotted hunting ties are often used with ratcatcher now and the benefit of a well-tied hunting tie over a turn-down collar and tie is the protection the former gives your neck.
Avoid white breeches with ratcatcher; it is incorrect and a fawn or brown pair looks much smarter under a tweed jacket. Brown or black long boots (without tops) are equally correct and offer significant protection from flying hooves and gate-posts. Garter straps are essential and must match the colour of your boot. Do them up snugly around your leg, not looping down over the boot, with the buckle fastened at the front – where, ideally, you will have buttons on your breeches (these days usually false). Both ladies and gentlemen top their costume with a bowler hat.
Headgear can be contentious. A skull cap with chin-strap is required to compete in nearly every riding discipline and is now commonly seen on the hunting field. Worn with an appropriate cover, this is now accepted; HRH The Prince of Wales made the change to a velvet cap with chin-strap in the Eighties. But we all hunt entirely at our own risk so we will include traditional lids; readers may then make up their own minds.
Once hunting proper starts black coats tend to be the order of the day. A sturdy hunt coat is incredibly good at keeping out weather. I once returned from a day hunting with half a pint of water in each boot but the rain had only just begun to breach the seams of my coat. For these benefits you must choose a hunt coat of Melton cloth or similar, and not a flimsy riding jacket as seen on show jumpers. As well as being easily damaged by weather and woods, these look incongruous outside an arena. Members of the field should have two or three black horn buttons fastening their coat (Masters wear four brass buttons).
Ladies wear a black coat, especially if they hunt in a bowler hat, but many now choose dark blue, it being thought more flattering to the complexion, with a velvet cap. Whether black or blue the coat should be long enough to break on the back of the saddle. “Bum freezer” jackets are rarely flattering and are best avoided.
Farmers wear a black velvet cap and gentlemen in the field used to wear a top hat with their hunt coat but toppers have been largely superseded by velvet caps; in Leicestershire, a dove-grey colour was adopted to differentiate. With these combinations white or coloured breeches are acceptable, but if you wear topboots white is correct. Mahogany tops are most common and easy to maintain with tan polish but “champagne” tops were once worn with red coats, allegedly so called because of the application of champagne in the cleaning process, but “whether to the valet or the top I do not pretend to know”, admitted WE Brock in The Young Foxhunter.
From sober and workmanlike we move on to brighter alternatives. Even describing the colour of these can cause problems. Pink is assumed to have come from the tailor Thomas Pink, a fine outfitter, but if your coat was not made there it’s a bit like calling your ballpoint a Bic when it isn’t. Hunt staff at many packs wear scarlet, so we are left with red. Such a coat should always be worn with a waistcoat.
An eye-catching red coat can be adopted when you have been invited to wear the hunt button or, it has been said, hunted for five years. In any event, it is not for the beginner. It is worn with brass buttons and skirted, in the style of an ordinary hunt coat, or cutaway at the front, with tails. Cutaways are dashing, especially if you are blessed with the figure of a guardsman, but perhaps best abandoned once you can no longer fit into the morning suit you married in. Both styles would have been worn with a top hat but, as with black coats, velvet caps have become common. These look smart with a skirted coat but are, I think, incongruous with a cutaway. Here, a top hat must surely remain the thing. With a red coat you should wear white breeches and top boots with a white garter strap.
For hunting proper it is correct to wear spurs, or dummy spurs with blunt ends. These should be set parallel to the ground and worn high along the ankle seam of your boot, not sagging at the heel. Riding boots are expensive but a good pair is an investment and they get heavy wear. Have them cut straight around the top, not swept up like a dressage boot. While comfort is paramount where boots are concerned, many find the care and boning of leather onerous. Fear not; Le Chameau makes a good-quality leather-lined, rubber boot that is, of course, waterproof. These have been adopted by some hunt staff and look much like the real thing – especially with the addition of a leather top.
If you are lucky enough to wear your hunt’s button it may come with other variations to normal dress, such as a coloured waistcoat or collar. The best known is the Beaufort’s distinctive colouring, but there are many others.
The niceties of hunting dress have been influenced by the whims of fashion and regional variations. But whether you are covering the country in tweed or cutting a dash in top hat and tails, it is essential to be neat and clean when you arrive at the meet. Any deviation from “correct form” is more likely to be overlooked if you are polished. As one sage observed, “If you look good enough you can get away with anything.” And having a groomed horse and clean tack is not vain it is safe. Only when you clean your tools can you see if they are in need of repair. Hunt staff and Masters spend countless hours preparing for every hunting day, and you have your fun as a guest of generous farmers, so it should be no hardship to show your appreciation by taking a little pride in your appearance.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULES
Hats There is nothing wrong with wearing a regulation crash hat but choose a suitable cover; imitation velvet is available.
Spurs Comfort for yourself and horse must come first, so if you are not familiar with using them, don’t.
Hunt Buttons It used to be the case that when visiting another hunt one was expected to wear plain buttons. However, the rule is now generally ignored as few people have enough coats to make it practical and most enjoy spying to see where you’re from.
WHAT AND WHERE TO BUY
Boots Horace Batten and Davies are favoured by hunters; Le Chameau rubber boots are available from Bestboots.
Coat A good local tailor will be able to help you; Bernard Weatherill, Frank Hall and Oliver Brown are all names that should inspire confidence; the Hunting Stock Market is also a great one-stop shop.
Breeches Bedford cord in a wool/cotton mix is washable and looks by far the best but a one-way stretch fabric is good.
Hat Safety hats are available at a tack shop near you and Patey has stores in London and Gloucestershire. Oliver Brown sells second-hand silk top hats.
Second Hand Vintage is often best, but beware – boots may have perished.
LITTLE BLACK BOOK
Horace Batten, tel 01858 410069;
Davies, tel 01495 313045;
Bestboots, tel 01249 783530;
Bernard Weatherill, tel 0800 953 5842 www.bernardweatherill.com
Frank Hall, tel 01858 462402;
Oliver Brown, tel 020 7259 9494;
Hunting Stock Market, tel: 01258 817533; www.huntingstockmarket.com
Patey, tel 0121 380 0807;
Calcutt & Sons, tel 01962 760210;