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A History of Shooting Clothes

Shooting

Article written by 16 May 2013

I have had trouble finding suitable clothes ever since I reached my full height of 6’2”.  It is not just that I am tall, I have disproportionately long arms and legs, so that in order that they fit correctly I need shirts with a 37” sleeve (my Perazzi has a fore-end 2 ½” longer than standard!).  Most off-the-peg clothing does not remotely fit, that which comes in small/medium/large style is hopeless; by the time the sleeves are long enough there is room to fit several other members of my family into the garment with me.  Years ago I had to reconcile myself to the fact that I simply had to get my proper clothes made for me, and this meant that I developed an interest in matters sartorial.

I like the traditions that are evoked on the shooting field, and for me, dressing the part is an essential part of the experience, especially on the grouse moor, but I cannot help thinking about why the tweed shooting suit has evolved as such a uniquely British institution.

It was not always so.  Prints of early sportsmen going about the countryside with muzzle loading guns, show the protagonists in all manner of colourful attire with top hats and billowing cravats.  Clearly the concept of the shooting suit had not developed at that time, although I have read that the requirement to carry a small tin, or dispenser, of explosive copper caps for the percussion guns that arrived in the 1820s resulted in the adoption of a small pocket on the hip of the coat; what is today regarded as a “ticket pocket”.

Shooting in Britain was, until the adoption of effective breech loading guns and driven shooting in the 1860s, something of an enthusiasts sport.  It required a body sound in wind and limb, for walking up was the only order of the day, and it required a degree of skill and dedication to master the intricacies of the gun and the handling of dogs.  It must have frequently been an unrewarding experience where foul weather would damp powder, and returning home with the same pointer one set out with might be considered a success… it was simply not fashionable and sportsmen would have adopted whatever outdoor clothes they had available to them.  At that time, broadcloth, heavy worstead or fustian would have been the order of the day.

Broadcloth and worsted are both twills (made by weaving woollen thread such that the weft runs over two or more warps at a time, the following weft starting one warp over, which produces a diagonal pattern in the fabric, which allows it to drape) with their origin in Medieval times.  Broadcloth was woven as a wide cloth and then fullered by hammering the cloth in a bath of soapy water until it had shrunk by a third to form a dense felt-like cloth that was resistant to water, and worsted, named after a Norfolk village, was woven from long staple wool fibres that better shed water, and in its finer form is still used for suiting today.  Fustian was an inexpensive hardwearing cotton cloth, of which velvet and corduroy are finer examples.

Victorian Britain was a time of extraordinary change; the growing middle classes looked to fill the idle moments of their day with activities, so we begin to see tennis, golf, cycling and even walking becoming fashionable activities that spawned outfits to suit the demands of the pursuits.  The railways provided fast transit between all points of the country, and allowed elegant sportsmen to live in town but take their sport in the country.  This meant that shooting was no longer the preserve of the odd country squire or clergyman, but became a source of entertainment for parties of guests at the great houses across the land.  When Royal interest, in the person of the Prince of Wales became involved, shooting was assured fashion status, and that required the right outfit.

Early photographs of Victorian shooting parties show a remarkable array of clothing, but two things stand out as common to all:  The cloth of choice is tweed, and all the trousers are cut to finish below the knee and are worn with stockings.

It is most likely that these fashions derived from Queen Victoria’s fascination with Scotland and her popularising fieldsports and Highland dress.  Tweed had been a rough woollen twill worn as a simple plaid by Scottish shepherds and others that had to subsist in the harsh climate, and it would have been natural that the expanding ranks of gamekeepers employed by the new class of lairds that were taking over the Highland estates from the chieftains of old, would resort to the same fabric.  At some stage it became fashionable to weave these plaids in patterns that identified the wearer as being a servant of a particular estate, and before long the fabric was being made up into garments for the gentry and visiting sportsmen, who must have found it superior to broadcloth and worstead.  When, in 1867, the Prince of Wales appeared in a suit, made up entirely of tweed, the fabric became a sensation and demand soared.  It is understood that tweed does not derive its title from the region surrounding the river Tweed, but the misapprehension of a London draper that misread the handwritten consignment docket for an order of “tweeled” fabric from a Hawick weaver.  Whatever the truth, the name stuck and tweed became big business.

William Powell's current range of Tweed

William Powell’s current range of Tweed

 

 

 

 

 

 

This leaves us to ponder on why the trousers should not descend below the knee, after all breeches had been given up in favour of trousers, for all except court dress, in the late 18th C.  I believe that there were two forces at play, and both were born of practicality.  Before the advent of the rubber Wellington boot there really was no such thing as waterproof footwear. The holes in the top leather of modern brogues are a tribute to the holes that perforated the outer of the stout shoes worn by the Irish, such that as the water entered, it may also leave!  By the Edwardian era shoes had become a good deal more sophisticated, but not much more effective, and it must have been common practice to expect to get wet feet, but to change stockings for dry ones as soon as one left the field.  I cannot help thinking that short trousers were also considered quite the thing for matters sporting, they would have been de-riguer for the ardent cyclist, popular with walkers and even crossed the Atlantic to appear in the new baseball stadiums a few years later.  So, breeks were practical and fashionable in the 1870s, so it is small wonder that they were considered quite suitable for the new sport of driven shooting that had suddenly taken root.

By 1900 the tweed shooting suit had become quite stylised, the cut very much followed the taste for fashion of the time; although Norfolk jackets were worn, the Prince of Wales is frequently pictured wearing a traditionally cut jacket, although the cut of the trousers had evolved so that they were baggier and cut longer at the knee.  This would have been possible because standing guns would not expect to wear leggings and they were undoubtedly more flattering to the squat and expanding figure of the Prince of Wales.  Eventually the breeches were to descend to the form of plus-fours, and the fashion of the shooting field migrated to the golf course when the Edward VII’s grandson was seen wearing a pair on a golf course in the 1920s.

The shooting suit has remained in essence the same for a hundred years.  It probably reached its epoch in the 1950s and the famous photograph of Sir Joseph Nickerson and his five guests who between them shot a record bag of 2,119 wild grey partridges at Rothwell in 1952 is probably the most perfect demonstration.  All wear tweed suits, with jackets that are closely tailored and fit tightly around the chest, above baggy breeches and woollen stockings worn with shoes… not boots!  Although the closely fitting jackets are not as sartorially elegant as they might have been, I am certain that they were styled on purpose and were not a result of expanding waistlines.  The “Big Six”, as Sir Joseph referred to them, were all first rate shots who would have appreciated the need to avoid surplus fabric, just as well as the top competition shooters today who choose to wear close fitting shooting vests.

The shooting suit has suffered something of a fall from grace, partly as fashions have become more casual, but also because, to work really well, most shooters require suits to be made to measure and the expense involved has seemed to be an unnecessary extravagance.  To be fair there are now a great many alternatives that function as well as, or provide even better protection from the weather than a tweed suit, and typically can be bought for a fraction of the price of a hand-made tailored tweed suit.  I do, however, sense something of a resurgence of interest in the traditional shooting suit. They are after all: elegant, practical and extremely hard wearing.  I still regularly shoot in suits that were cut over 20 years ago. Amortised over that time span, I would think it is a good deal less expensive than replacing Goretex jackets every three years or so as the seams weaken and begin to let in water.

William Powell of course sell an extremely well designed and cut shooting suit (with matching waterproof tweed outer shooting coat) in three different tweeds. Click here to take a look.

William Powell current day shooting suit

William Powell current day shooting suit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Main image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/etchingsplus/8226928692/

Thomas Kier

Thomas Kier is an all around shooting enthusiast, whose interest spreads from the social to the technical, and encompasses sport with gun and rifle from the moors of his native England to the Sonaran deserts of his adoptive home in Arizon.. Read more.

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