Between 1780 and 1840 the Meltonian Dandy transformed hunting dress, says Dr Hannah Clark. Appearances were every bit as important as the practicalities of crossing a changing countryside
The Meltonian Dandy transformed hunting dress between 1780 and 1840, creating much of the distinctive costume associated with the sport today. Dr Hannah Clark explains how appearances were as important as adapting to the changing countryside.
Like hunting dress, good etiquette and the code of manners is steeped in tradition and convention, yet it is far from outmoded – simply common sense to ensure a good day is enjoyed by all. Make sure you brush up before entering the hunting field, read hunting etiquette and manners in the field.
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“The style of your Meltonian Fox-hunter,” wrote the hunting writer Nimrod in the 1830s, “has long distinguished him above his brethren of what he calls the provincial chase. When turned out at the hands of his valet, he presents the very beau-ideal of his caste. The exact Stultze-like fit of his coat – his superlatively well-cleaned leather breeches and boots and the generally apparent high breeding of the man can seldom be matched elsewhere.”
Others agreed: Henry Alken’s print series How to qualify for a Meltonian: addressed to all would-be Meltonians, 1821, outlined the Meltonian’s superior elegance; and TJ Rawlins’ image, The Meltonian: or, the pleasures of the chase developed, 1833, championed the sartorial prowess of the resplendently attired ‘Real Meltonian’ foxhunter over his pictorial neighbours, ‘The Old English foxhunter’ and ‘The Common Rate Sportsman’. Clearly, the Dandy Meltonian foxhunter’s dress was a mark of distinction but, interestingly, he was also the catalyst for much of the distinctive hunting costume we associate with the sport today.
British foxhunting dress and equipage have become synonymous with the image of fox-hunting, providing an instantly recognisable signifier of the hunt and British countryside depicted on everything from sporting prints to ceramic-handled pub beer pulls. The sport has been depicted as a timeless and unchanging triptych of hounds, the chase and the traditional hunting ‘pinks’ of the riders. Yet this ‘traditional’ image is more modern than it seems and was the result of disruptive, urban forces as much as country pastimes. Between 1780 and 1840, young men were driven back to the British countryside in search of a suitably entertaining and morally and physically improving pastime. Fears of male effeminacy and physical degeneration due to increased city living, the curtailing of the European Grand Tour – the traditional rite of passage for male elites – and the threat to national security posed by the Napoleonic Wars were all factors in their adoption of a formerly staid sport. Alongside this, a growing desire for organised, gentlemanly sports, male social clubs (running from cricket to ‘kicking’ clubs) and a new generation (whose wealth came from industrial as much as landed means) transformed foxhunting. Combined with a changed hunting landscape – where the new hedges and ditches of the Enclosure Act 1773 became enjoyable challenges to be traversed rather than avoided – and an ever-growing thirst for speed seen in the new thoroughbred horses (the Ferraris of their day), a new, modern, fashionable form of foxhunting in Leicestershire and the surrounding ‘Shires’ exploded onto the scene. The birth of Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, as the fashionable hunting metropolis of choice brought with it a new breed of foxhunter whose dress and idea of the ‘body-beautiful’ became as important as the physical act of hunting.
The Regency form of hunt clothing represented the changing ideals concerning the body beneath. For these young urban Corinthians, looks, style and the athletic, classical body of an Adonis were everything. The fitted cut of their hunting coats, top boots and skin-tight buckskin breeches (often concealing a body-sculpting hunting corset) were designed to give them this classical figure and were a direct riposte to old-fashioned, drab-coloured, full-skirted, voluminous hunting coats and the slow, methodical hunting of the ancestral squirearchy. These fashionable London dandies, the Thrusters and Meltonians demonically charging at speed over the newly enclosed English landscape, wanted a new hunt uniform that could be admired on the field and equally at the Old Club, Melton Mowbray, or White’s or Brookes’s in London. Their style was celebrated in the London press, society and on the theatrical stage (where a live foxhunt enacting the Meltonians’ hunting exploits was quite the thing).
Fashion and style were critical to the Meltonian’s masculinity; his dressed body bridging the divide between metropolis and countryside. A hunting coat preserved at the V&A shows how the Regency Meltonian typically wore a tightly fitted tailcoat made from red broadcloth, with a high rolled collar, deep, double-notch revers and broad, gathered shoulders. It was either cut high at the waist and double breasted or cut away at the front, with brass buttons. This marked a complete change from the desirable narrow-shouldered, pear-shaped body of past hunting generations.
Instead, European writers such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) and the mania for the collection of Greek and Roman antique sculpture established a new, classical ideal of male beauty that celebrated slim-waisted, broad-shouldered, antique nude physiques and attempted to recreate this heroic nudity in dressed form. Notably, the Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican was praised for its grace, smooth musculature and lithe and athletic shape. No surprise then that Meltonians liked to be known as Corinthians of the sporting world (since 1806, foxhunters from London would have had access to the Parthenon marbles, with their frieze of nude young men galloping fearlessly on horseback).
It was the tailor who sculpted the new heroic hunting male. The cut of the hunting coat emphasised this classical physique. New cutting systems that employed a mathematical understanding of anatomy and the invention of the tape measure in the early 19th-century were of huge importance allowing accurate measurement of the individual body and clothing to be tighter. Excellent tailoring used clever darting and seams, changed where the waist was placed and created discreetly padded shoulders and chests to give the illusion of muscles.
Both London dandy and hunting dress were united by their materiality: wool. Both needed an adaptable material. Woollen cloth was more flexible than silk (which tended to crease and crinkle when fitted closely to the body) and, during tailoring, could be stretched, shrunk and pressed to create the ideal form. Moreover, the aristocracy’s rejection of French and Spanish silks, brocades and velvets, and the re-appreciation of wool may have been linked to perceptions of Britishness, national pride and economic patriotism at a time of great political uncertainty with Europe.
HOME OF THE DANDY
Stultze was the fashionable Meltonian’s tailor of the day. Maxwell and Hoby sold the most desirable hunting boots, and hats could be bought from James Lock & Co and S Patey & Sons. Swaine Adeney and W&H Gidden purveyed leather goods for the hunting and country set. Most of these businesses (many of which thrive today) were situated in St James’s, London, in the same spaces the hunting dandy lived or rambled in.
The physical demands of the new hunting style – the emphasis on speed and daring leaps, meant that clothing had to work with the hunter’s body on horseback, placing new demands on its design and construction. The fashionable top hat of the city was duly modified for the hunting field. In Alken’s print How to take your leap, top hats are shown attached by a cord to a button on the back of the rider’s jacket or collar. Historically, top boots rose up over the knee to cover a good portion of the thigh. Now, the new saddles and agricultural boundaries in the hunting landscape required hunters to turn down the tops of their boots in order to be able to bend their knees sufficiently for jumping.
From around 1800 onwards, the adoption of ‘scarlet’ (later known in hunting terms as ‘pink’) as the predominant colour for hunting coats was linked to the military dress of the Napoleonic wars and a desire for an equally distinctive and visually powerful hunt identity. The Stroudwater Scarlet cavalry twill or broadcloth (later Melton cloth) used for both uniforms was probably produced by the same mills in the Stroud valley, Gloucestershire, which had a long history of supplying cloth for military uniform. Many of the Savile Row military tailors such as Meyer & Sons (now Meyer & Mortimer) also supplied hunting dress. A scarlet-coated cavalry charge featuring young men booted and spurred holding sabres aloft was visually comparable to a large field of foxhunters (sometimes as large as 400 in Leicestershire) hurtling along at full tilt, similarly booted and spurred, with their whips aloft. Indeed, many cavalry officers who led the cavalry charges during the Napoleonic wars were also Meltonians, and were permitted Army leave to hunt in the Shires.
Before the 19th century few hunts wore scarlet, or possessed a recognisable hunting uniform. Most members wore a mixture of dark green, navy and drabs. The advent of a recognisable uniform became a badge of membership and gentlemanly sportsmanship, but also represented social exclusivity and hierarchy. And the sexual appeal of soldiers and military scarlet was well known in the period. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, after seeing the scarlet-clad militia Kitty and Lydia Bennet ‘could talk of nothing but officers’. Another contemporary book was rather more blunt stating that ‘women, like mackerel… [were] caught with a red bait’. The young, fashionable hunters who adopted this colour were surely aware of this.
Military and hunt clothing was not just meant to reveal the body but also control it. Military uniforms’ stiff, stand-up collars forced the wearer to assume a tall, upright posture. Meltonian’s also wore high, starched collars, tied with elaborate neck clothes (later to become hunt stocks), which, as seen in Alken’s print How to qualify as a Meltonian, similarly forced their heads erect. Some Meltonian’s even adopted the black military, rather than a cream stock.
The vain Meltonian may also have copied cavalry officers who were reputed to wear corsets supposedly for their strengthening benefits but also, arguably, because they created the desired physique. So-called ‘hunting belts’ (or corsets) were advertised to support the figure and repress corpulency.
Like the dandy catwalks of St James’s in London, Melton and the Shires were a masculine stage with the male body largely dressed for the approval of other men.
Alken’s A hunting trip to Melton (1821) reveals the field as a catwalk where appearance was everything. One Meltonian has his servant polish his boots before he mounts, while another’s servant holds a mirror whilst he attempts to replicate the famous Beau Brummell necktie. By the 1820s, these Mr Darcy’s of the day were celebrated for their style not only on the field but in London’s dandy heartland, where the dandy could buy clothing emulating the Meltonian. A London tailor advertised a scarlet hunting coat, noting that the ‘article would be invaluable to the lovers of the chase, as even when worn in the alcoves of the Albany, it would instantly waft him to the “Meet” at Melton’.
He could read about the Meltonian’s exploits in the London press (Bell’s Life, The Sporting Magazine and The New Sporting Magazine), and purchase Meltonian hunting prints from Rudolph Ackermann or S&J Fuller’s Sporting Gallery. Alken’s print series How to qualify for a Meltonian: addressed to all would-be Meltonians, 1821, and Some of the right sort doing the thing: Views in Leicestershire, 1818, were both humorous and instructional, advising the viewer on the finer points of Meltonian style.
Such was the legacy of these fashionable hunters, they achieved the immortal god-like status their Corinthian-fashioned selves had craved, becoming in the hunting world the very gods they tried to emulate. Even into the early 20th century, few hunters could set foot on the hallowed turf of the Shires without conjuring up their image. As he rode through the Leicestershire landscape the equestrian artist Alfred Munnings recalled the famous figures of Melton in the 1820s, observing it was easy, “to imagine the scenes of yore with Assheton Smith, Lord Forrester, Lord Alvanley and the rest of them”. To echo the Regency British sportswriter Pierce Egan’s observation, the Meltonian had become “the style; the whole style; and nothing else but the style”.