Ah, the rural British fashion sense, it’s one that has been present for some time. It is ingrained into not only our own ideas of our national identity – but across the globe in relation to what many consider to be ‘traditional’ British clothing
So, what comes to mind when you think of British country fashion?
Tweed. You’re probably thinking of tweed. How could you not? From the Royals to rurals, and lest we forget those fictional scholars; tweed is the clothing of Britain. With a land as grey and dreary as our beloved Great Britain, it’s not surprising that tweed has been so popular in recent history. The tough, woollen fabric is warm and dry against the drizzly conditions of most British rural regions.
It originated in Scotland to keep the northern farmers nice and toasty upon the highlands, and it’s still produced there to this day.
Despite its beginnings as practical clothing for Scottish farmers, tweed became a fashion movement for rich English aristocrats in the 1820s who happened to own land in the highlands. From this point onwards, tweed continued its growth in prevalence through into the Victorian era in which it garnered popularity in the category of country sports, like hunting, not only because of its resistance to wet, cold weather but also due to its durability. It was the epitome of rural masculinity – nothing could stop a man in a tweed shooting jacket.
Once the Second World War passed, and the more radical fashion movements that applied tweed in more anti-cultural movements in the 1980s, it seemed that tweed slipped back into its rural role, with farmers and more conservative countryside residents turning to the material to keep them comfortable in colder weather. However, this doesn’t mean that tweed has slipped out of the general populous’ eyes for good – alas, a trend for all things vintage and retro has thrust this British staple of fashion firmly back into the spotlight!
But is tweed all there is to British country fashion? Of course not! You can’t forget the good old flat cap. This trusty old hat originated in 14th century England, up north, which isn’t surprising with their weather. The tweed used to make the flat caps keep their noggins warm. And in 1571, Parliament made sure every male over the age of seven had to wear one of these woollen caps on Sundays, and public holidays, otherwise, they would be fined. This was an attempt to boost domestic wool sales. And though this was repealed just less than 30 years later, this time in enforced tweed hat wearing had cemented the flat cap as traditional headwear for those non-noble persons, like tradesmen.
The flat cap also became even more common throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as men through Britain always wore some kind of headgear, and flat caps were the preferred style. This hat was also adopted by the upper class during this time, using finer cloths to make some casual headgear for those more well off Englishmen in the countryside.
And in regards to jackets and gilets, we all know that tweed isn’t the only icon for Britain. The waxed gilet or a jacket and its traditional dark green colours didn’t actually start in Great Britain. The production of wax jackets began back in Ancient Egypt, and it was only in 18th century Scotland that the mass production of these durable coats and boat sails (that’s how tough this fabric is!) made it into Britain. Though it was companies like J. Barbour & Sons that made them for farmers, as sailors were the main wearers historically. They are perfect for when trudging along the countryside, so it’s clear why they transitioned into a rural audience and have remained there still to this day. Not as fancy as some tweed jackets are, but just as practical in the British countryside.
And, finally, we are on to footwear. There are two main pieces of footwear relevant to the history of British countryside fashion: Wellington boots and brogues.
Originally the Wellington boot was made of leather and made popular by the 1st Duke of Wellington (hence the name), and became popular amongst the upper classes in Britain in the 19th Century. It was only later on that the name Wellington became known as rubber boots also. These boots are the ones we know of today, their waterproof material making them perfect for agricultural work.
Meanwhile, brogues were initially only meant for outdoor country wear, not casual or business occasions – how times have changed!
Originally produced in Scotland and Ireland, the modern brogues that we know today were made with holes in with the intent of allowing water to drain from the shoes if the wearer happened to be working on the boggy land. Though the ‘original’ brogue apparently didn’t possess holes like this, and in fact just referred to a form of country walking shoes in the early 20th century.