From modest origins, the gilet has evolved into a sporting wardrobe staple, combining function and fashion to become a status symbol in its own right, says Eve Jones
I wonder how many of you reading this are wearing a gilet? A fair few, I’ll wager. From modest, practical origins in the 15th century it has become quite the status symbol, subtly, or not so subtly, announcing one’s social and professional persuasions with its form, fabric and the likely or unlikely places it appears. Indeed, this lightweight garment has been weighed down by shifting nuances for centuries, undergoing various transformations on its journey from peasant to pheasant.
THE GILET – A SPORTING WARDROBE STAPLE
As early as the 1500s, the gilet appeared as the practical clothing of European peasants, offering warmth and sleeveless manoeuvrability while working the fields. Appropriated by 16th-century monarch Henry VIII in the form of a jerkin and, as a far more elaborate affair, padded and worn over a doublet, it became de rigueur among the aristocracy over the following century. As men turned to slimmer waistcoats, women adopted the garment wearing a silk gilet over dress bodices in the 18th century. But by the 20th century these delicacies had subsided, too, and the gilet was once again revived as functional attire; lined in wool, it found itself in the trenches along with the infantrymen of World War I. A quiet spell followed in the mainstream gilet fashion stakes, although a useful modification was being adopted by landed gentry and their estate workers, who required a garment that offered warmth and freedom of movement while hunting, shooting or fishing.
Around 1980, Barbour – Royal Warrant-holding creator of the iconic waxed cotton jacket – produced its first quilted gilet, soon to be a stalwart of the British countryside and essential country sports spectators’ wear. Meanwhile, mainstream gilet wearing was about to take off with both barking Pony Club DCs and barking-mad ravers just as likely to be seen in puffer ‘bodywarmer’ waistcoats, which were adopted by fashion houses and brands around the world. Gilets were now ubiquitous and one’s choice of style spoke volumes. Hiker? Raver? Pop star? Rider? From the 1990s onwards utility and fashion converged into a minefield of sleeveless status badges. In the country sports community, canvas-pocketed utility vests, down-filled bodywarmers, fleeces, waxed cotton zip-ups and tweed shooting waistcoats were rife.
Gilet, bodywarmer, vest, waistcoat – call it what you will, its modern-day wardrobe domination is undeniable in the countryside. A gilet (pronounced jee-lay, never gill-et), literally, is a lightweight, sleeveless jacket, typically but not always straight sided, waist- to knee-length. Challenge any fieldsports type to rummage through their cupboards and not find at least one item that falls into that category. More than likely there will be plenty more, in different styles and ages, comfortably worn in with a varying scale of mud or dog hair on them, chosen purposefully for different occasions. Quilted for a hunt Meet or county show; canvas-pocketed vest for fishing and gardening; smart fleece for shooting or work; tatty fleece for reading, riding, sleeping… Interestingly, all genders and ages of country dweller could own identical garments, new, worn or handed down, because the universal attraction of the gilet is not just its form but its function.
Indoors, where quilted sleeves would be frowned upon, the gilet has an accepted place in kitchens, sitting rooms, at dinner tables and reportedly even in bed in the more frugal of homes. Outside, they are undeniably useful with deep pockets for hoof picks, bait, cartridges, phones or baler twine. A true perennial, they are a handy layer through the year but an extra-valuable underlayer in winter. At the same time, the familiar sleeveless silhouette provides a sense of belonging, a warmly recognised symbol of the rurally initiated, unwaveringly accepted, subconsciously collected. A Savills chartered surveyor reminisced fondly of his collection: “My first one was the wax Barbour I bought in a charity shop in Cirencester when I was a student. My fleece is from C&A, and I tend to wear my black Musto waterproof to work now as the soft-shell Musto has got a bit ragged. It’s had a hard life: skiing, sailing, shooting, raving.” Farlows sells gilets in a number of materials but utility is still at the forefront of customer demand, according to product manager Jack Gregorie. “These are functional garments serving a purpose, especially where the shooting vests are concerned.”
THE ‘S’ WORD
At the crux of most gilet collections will almost certainly be the fleece and one cannot talk about modern-day gilets without mentioning the ‘S’ word. In the early ’90s, in waded the eponymous Schöffel in the form of the Oakham gilet, a leather-trimmed, zip-up, fundamentally unisex fleece waistcoat that interrupted the dominance of the quilted puffer and soon became emblematic of the country sports fraternity. As iconic in the rural landscape as the red trouser once was, its success has been astounding, with countless imitations flooding the market. Shooting, beating, pubbing, Sunday lunching with in-laws, hunting mornings, fireside evenings, work-day attire – the fleece gilet has become a ‘one size fits all’ wardrobe essential.
The Oakham comes with a stiff price tag, though. It starts from £159.95, while other gilets in the same style are as much as £200. When a sea of Young Farmers’ Club beer-tent revellers or Game Fair crowds ripple with Schöffels, what appears a social leveller is in fact a significant display of financial and social status. Such is the devotion the brand attracts that a dedicated Instagram account, Schoff Spotted (@schoffelspotted), regularly reports gilet sightings from locations as varied as St Paul’s Cathedral, Vale do Lobo golf course, La Folie Douce Méribel and Cornwall. A tonguein- cheek entry in posh person’s guide The Chin Dictionary defines the gilet (unanimously implied in London circles to be the Schöffel) as the ‘Fulham lifejacket’: ‘The seminal chin accessory: the gilet. Vital for shipbroking, insurance, property, PR, inheriting and lamping. Seen worldwide but mainly Fulham, Cirencester and Membury Services on the M4.’
Satire aside, for a benchmark of rural fashion trends, an agricultural college student is a good indicator. “I used to work for a sporting agent and clay-shooting ground that gave you a Schöffel for every year of service,” recalls Tara Dickinson- Barry, whose gilet addiction began at university. “I loved going to a uni (RAC, 10 years ago) where the gilet was a standard accessory for a night out – it was much more appealing to wear a skin-tight body suit and tiny denim shorts knowing you’re going to throw over a fleecy layer complete with pockets for your phone, fags and dorm key. A sure sign of winter in the Cotswolds is the return of the ‘Doublè Schöffel’ (a gilet over a long-sleeved version, naturally): popped collars, tan piping and layered zips, the more outrageous the colour combinations the better. It is also worth noting that in farming circles it’s normal to have your ‘work Schöffel’, which is probably one you got as a young farmer, is about 15 years old and the zip is barely attached, and a ‘smart Schöffel’ for town and Cheltenham. Oh, and an imitation Schöffel is referred to (in our house, at least) as an ‘Offal’.”
A MORE REFINED GILET
There has been a change of late. A shock rumour suggests that one well-known estate agent’s country houses department has banned wearing Schöffels to the office, so it would appear the fleecy phenomenon is shifting. Alternative high-street and designer offerings are extensive, costing tens to thousands of pounds, and in the rural world a more sophisticated gilet is appearing as a ubiquitous style staple. Introducing tailoring to casual occasions, a tweed, rounded Nehru-style collared garment is commonly to be found on school runs, in country pubs, Parsons Green bars and smart gunrooms, on both men and women. More refined in the fashion stakes, these longer-line gilets have in part replaced fleece or knitted designs in favour of a more grown-up look, much less functional or agricultural in appearance. “What we’ve seen over the past year or so,” says Gregorie, “is some of our more traditional country customers wearing more contemporary items, together with some of our urban customers sporting gilets over their city shirts and ties. We’ve been expanding the Farlows collection with new materials too, including suede and linen alongside our usual tweeds, and these are proving popular.” One landed shooting enthusiast noted: “While I own numerous Schöffels, I can’t help but think that their days here are over, relegated to the muddy dog walks and odd jobs around the farm. I’ve gone back to vintage Puffas in an attempt to stand out from the crowd. The king is dead. Long live the king. (And I just got a Bella Hoskyns job too. Pushed the boat out.)”
Bella Hoskyns’ line of elegant gilets was born from a gap in the market. “At 19 I realised there wasn’t anything out there I wanted to wear, so I designed my own gilet and had it made up,” explains brand owner Arabella Hoskyns-Abrahall. “The gilet I sell today is the original design from then. Classic, elegant, long enough to hide the ‘danger zone’ and rustic enough to never look new.” While priced at the upper end of the market, they are designed to be used, not saved for best. “My strapline has always been stylish yet fundamentally practical. There is no point in a gilet unless it’s practical, in my eyes. Gilets are bit more than a jumper with the benefit of pockets. Something you can wear inside a cold house but feel you’re not wearing a coat. A place to put your phone so you don’t have to keep asking where you’ve put it. My customers range from 20 to 80 in age and everyone wears it differently.”
While to the outside world these garments may appear limited in style, the nuances of the countryman or woman’s gilet collection cannot be overstated. Brand spanking new, well worn, inherited, fleece, tweed, branded or unbranded, these purposeful little layers speak volumes about the owner. They reflect their attitudes, careers, social groups, families, relationships and hobbies. Yet, no matter which version is donned, and where, isn’t it really the unassuming ‘this old thing’ comfort blanket that truly appeals? Your gilet is your countryside membership card, universally acknowledged. So, not so humble, really, and bloody comfortable too.
WHAT YOUR GILET SAYS ABOUT YOU
THE QUEEN ELIZABETH II
Paisley-lined quilted waistcoat. Brought out, weather permitting, for decades. You are smart, comfortable, functional, economical and distinctly equestrian.
THE KATE MIDDLETON
Practical but fashionable vest, with pockets large enough to stash a bush knife in when touring abroad doing outdoorsy things. You like to appear as practical as the late Queen (but aren’t).
THE PRINCESS ANNE
Utterly functional utility vest. Entirely devoid of fashion purpose. There’s a job to jolly well be done, let’s kick on.
THE DAVID BECKHAM
Premier League bodywarmer bloke turned tweeded Great Tew gent. Unashamedly lacking in imposter syndrome. A heroic style chameleon.
THE RAU STUDENT
Schöffel/Offal/Puffa-clad 99.9% of the time. Hand in a cow? No sleeves, no problem. Plenty of room to stash cider cans too. Has commemorative marks from both activities.
Mad about gilets? Take a look at our pick of the best shooting gilets to wear.