As trends vie with tradition, what is the proper attire for a shooting day? Robert Gibbons assists in cracking the dress code
Should one follow trend or tradition when dressing properly for a day in the field? Robert Gibbons offers his advice on what to wear for shooting.
Looking to add to your sporting kit? Read what to wear when shooting to discover what kit top shots wear in the field.
WHAT TO WEAR FOR SHOOTING
I do not think any of us could have failed to notice the recent upsurge in interest in dress code, supported by features in magazines and comments in the press and media generally. A typical headline on the subject drew my attention: Tory ball no longer for elite as black ties are axed. There is no doubt that, for the dress conscious, we are living in interesting times, which begs the question: is there a dress code for shooting? There is undoubtedly a dress code expected for special occasions, exemplified by those engaged in certain jobs or professions – the military, the Navy, the Church and Court all have long-established standards of dress. However, how we dress, when we dress and why we dress as we do is dependent on a number of factors, not least of which is to keep warm in winter and cool in summer.
In our modern environment, a lot of people dress just for comfort regardless of those around them, even making a point of not conforming. Comfort dressing can take many forms, of which not wearing a tie or jacket seems to be top of the list. This is typified when, on entering a restaurant, a meeting or just sitting down in the office, the jacket is immediately removed and if a tie is worn at all, it is loosened. It is now so commonplace that people no longer ask permission to do so.
The general mood nowadays seems to be in favour of dressing down rather than dressing up. I fear this has crept into the shooting fraternity, too. Dressing down at work, or in the office, on Fridays I believe was an American innovation. The idea being that the wearing of casual clothes would improve staff morale and increase productivity. Whether this is the case I am in no position to judge, but I doubt it does either. For the more mature individual who has come to terms with dressing down if it is optional, it presents no problem; if it is obligatory, that is a different matter.
There used to be an expression, not much used now, that an individual was “dressed to kill”. It had nothing to do with shooting but meant somebody who was dressed very smartly and in the height of fashion. According to the dictionary, the general idea behind dressing this way was to make a conquest, or a “kill”, of one of the opposite sex.
Then there were those who were said to be “dressed up to the nines”, which the same dictionary describes as being “dressed elaborately”, typically by those who are deemed to be overdressed. And we should not leave out “fancy dress”, a way of dressing usually employed by those who attend a party or a ball, which requires as part of the condition of attending a fanciful costume. Fortunately, this is a rarity in the shooting field despite some incidents having been noted, such as the Boxing Day shoot in Surrey at which one of the guns turned up dressed as Father Christmas.
No article about dress can ignore “The Full Monty”. This expression has come to mean everything, the full works, and I suppose it could, in some instances, be applied to those sportsmen who take that line on a day’s shooting. The origin of the expression is said to be attributed to the late Field Marshal Montgomery, nicknamed “Monty”, who began each day with a full English breakfast during his campaign in North Africa during the Second World War.
All of the foregoing gets further muddled when an invitation states at the bottom of the RSVP: “Dress casual” (whatever that can mean). This is, in my view, confusing. Invitations should be a bit more precise. “Black Tie”, for example, is understood to mean evening dress. There was once serious confusion when a host stated “Evening Dress” in his invitation, which resulted in the guest coming down to dinner in pyjamas and dressing gown. This really did happen, the guest being a foreign visitor on his first visit to England.
And then there’s “White Tie” (rapidly falling out of use, even on State occasions; few of us possess the right jacket that accompanies it). Of course, there are those who deliberately dress incorrectly just to make a point. We will all remember our former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, who did just that by ignoring the accepted dress code and turning up at the Guildhall – where everyone else was in white tie – wearing just a plain blue suit and a red tie.
THE COMPLETE KIT
So what, the reader may ask, has all this got to do with shooting? Looking back through old pre-war photographs (and even further back than that), I have not come across any guns on a formal driven day who were wearing anything other than what was referred to in some of the old adverts that appeared at the time, even in this magazine, as “the complete shooting kit”, which typified what was the correct dress for the shooting man. One of the adverts indicated the shooting suit as being “designed by sportsmen for sportsmen”, stating how the wearing of such a suit, and I quote, “assists skill by ensuring absolute freedom of movement, keeping the wearer dry when it rains, warm when it is chilly, yet naturally ventilating it is delightfully cool on the hottest day”.
The best made shooting suit should have a jacket with pivot sleeves, with either plus-fours or knicker breeches, made out of the best tweed available. The socks should be woollen and the garters tied, not elastic, the reason being that elastic can, apparently, affect circulation. In those days, nobody attended a shoot in Wellingtons; stout shoes or ankle boots were always worn. I have never succumbed myself to the wellington boot fashion or French equivalent for the following good reasons. Such footwear may be waterproof but it is uncomfortable for walking in for long periods, is a hindrance to footwork (so important to a shooting man) and is not at all smart or stylish if that is important. Hoggs of Strathmiglo, Fife, made excellent shoes and Norwalls’ Perth Boots and Shoes were described as being “wear and wet repellent for the moors” and featured a special “dri-ped super leather for soles”, the wearing of which, according to the advert, “defied the destructive nature of the heath and bracken, boggy ground and brackish water, leaving the feet absolutely bone dry in the wettest of weather, wears like veritable pin wire and, above all, gives perfection to the foot and comfort”. The shoes at the time were priced at 18s 6d a pair.
So there you have it. The above is a clear indication of what the shooting man should wear, albeit in another era. With more and more women shooting, from my experience, little guidance is needed when addressing what the lady gun should wear. I may be fortunate but I have never witnessed a lady gun who dressed inappropriately or let the side down. That, I regret, has been the monopoly of the male of the species.
WELL TURNED OUT
A significant number of those who shoot still happily wear the shooting suit as described – or as near to it as current fashion dictates. The suit, accompanied by a shirt and tie, is still for many de rigueur. Frankly, for my money, there is no better sight than on a beautiful pheasant day, or a clear sunny August day at the grouse, than to see a line of guns well turned out in what I have described as traditional garb.
A soft hat, trilby or tweed cap should be worn as a practicality, keeping your head warm and dry in winter and the sun out of your eyes in summer. Some readers will remember another old advert, “If you
want to get ahead, get a hat”. Well, that certainly no longer applies. If you look around any airport lounge, station, street or supermarket, nobody appears to wear any headgear at all, except for a smattering of hoodies or those who have adopted the balaclava look or the dreaded baseball caps. It is now not uncommon for those who attend a shoot to do so hatless.
It is worth pointing out that, to some degree, how we dress depends on the location. I, for example, in the Highlands always wear a kilt on a grouse moor and have done so on hill pheasant and partridge days. I would not dream of wearing a kilt on a pheasant shoot in Gloucestershire. All of us who shoot regularly have witnessed people who have turned up in outfits that grate. I do not think jeans and trainers are acceptable. All of us can recall having been on a shoot where some of the guns, quite literally, have turned up dressed like tramps, tie-less, in dirty Wellingtons with a torn, patched and grubby Barbour and a cartridge bag that hasn’t seen polish since its purchase. Not a pretty sight. Despite the casual nature of life today, cleanliness should never go out of fashion. If they want to dress like one of the beaters, perhaps they should go out with them.
There are always exceptions to the rule. An acquaintance always wears a pair of brown, co-respondent golf shoes, old-fashioned ones with spikes, as he says it gives him a better footing. Otherwise his dress is immaculate. Then there is the occasion I shall never forget some years ago, on an ultra-smart driven shoot in Hampshire. One of the guns turned up late, just as we were about to leave for the first drive, in a blue pinstripe suit, no hat, carrying some cartridges in a plastic carrier bag. He had also arrived without a gun and was obliged to borrow one. I have to say it did not enhance my morning and frankly put me off having been drawn next to the fellow. I couldn’t for the life of me think what he was playing at, only to be told at lunchtime by my host, who had noticed my discomfort, that his guest had flown in from New York earlier that morning. The car that was meant to have collected him had not arrived with all his kit and, rather than let his host down, he turned up for the shoot, despite looking more like a bank manager than a sportsman, to enjoy the day’s pheasant shooting. Given the circumstances, he was applauded for his initiative and I felt guilty for having misjudged the man who, in my book, did the right thing, even stopping off en route to the shoot to buy cartridges.
In summary, it is no part of mine or this excellent magazine’s job to dictate what a shooting man, or woman, should wear or not wear on a formal or informal shoot and lay down hard and fast rules on the subject. I have a friend who dispenses with plus-fours and in their place wears a pair of well-tailored trousers in his estate cloth and looks very smart. A day’s shooting, formal or informal, is not the Centre Court at Wimbledon. However, given the scope and choice, I would point out the options available. Those who have the fortune to attend a good driven day might, as they decide on their mode of dress and out of respect to their hosts, consider wearing a shooting suit. I do not think it is out of place to suggest the desirability of doing so on such an occasion. I, personally, don’t think that trousers are particularly practical but it could be argued they meet the criteria of a shooting suit well enough. After all, part of dress is style, a subject we don’t seem to hear much of nowadays. By style, I do not necessarily mean following fashion – it is just looking the part.