9 Nov 2022

The Evolution of Outerwear

As the temperature begins to drop and the cold days of winter loom on the horizon, it’s time to consider the subject of outerwear. Britain’s notoriously unpredictable weather has inflicted many challenges for a nation that enjoys outdoor pursuits and open-air entertainment. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that the British have developed an unrivalled range of warm and weatherproof garments.

Many of these – now fashionable – garments have utilitarian roots, evolving from Britain’s seafaring and military past, aided by the ingenious appliance of science. The invention of truly waterproof coats and footwear has made the great outdoors painlessly accessible even during the worst winter weather…

Waxed Jackets

Britain is an island nation with a long maritime history, and many iconic British garments have their roots on board ship. Waxed cotton was first invented for the clipper fleet when linseed oil (extracted from the flax plants used to make linen) was used to treat cotton sails and seamen’s clothing. The treated cloth was waterproof but became stiff in cold weather.

In the 1930s a new process was invented, when cotton cloth was treated with cupro-ammonia and coated with paraffin wax. The new, more flexible, fabric became indispensable for robust outdoor wear, much favoured by farmers and gamekeepers.

The chemical treatments meant that the fabric was originally only available in black or dark olive. The olive could vary considerably, so it became traditional for olive waxed cotton garments to boast a standardised brown corduroy collar.

Now adopted as the uniform of Britain’s country classes, waxed cotton jackets have moved beyond their beginnings as practical workwear. They are de rigueur at any social gathering in the countryside where protection from the elements is paramount and are worn in preference to woollen overcoats – especially for horse racing, horse trials, point to points, shooting parties and country fairs – and are often accessorised with tweed caps, silk headscarves and wellington boots.

Wellingtons

This ubiquitous and practical boot had its origins in British military history. Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington and the general who led his nation’s troops to victory at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), instructed his shoemaker, George Hoby of St James Street, London, to fashion a boot out of calfskin leather. The boot was an adaptation of the traditional ‘Hessian’ design, cut lower on the leg so they were more comfortable for riding.

Leather wellingtons proved enduringly popular – practical in battle, but appropriately stylish for evening wear.

Their transition to rubber boots followed the invention of the vulcanisation process for rubber by Charles Goodyear (1800–60). American entrepreneurs took the new technology to France, where waterproof rubber boots proved an immediate hit with farmers, and to Edinburgh, where rubber boots were manufactured from 1856 at the behest of an American named Henry Lee Norris. He believed that Scotland was a good place to manufacture wellingtons because of the country’s very high rainfall.

Wellingtons proved invaluable in the trenches of World War I, while in peacetime they kept fishermen’s feet dry and protected farmers from mud. Made of natural rubber with non-slip soles they were the ultimate practical footwear.

When manufacturers began to make them in a range of fashionable colours and patterns, wellington boots underwent another renaissance. They became the must-have footwear for country events, festivals and rainy days – a perfect fashion icon for a nation that enjoys the outdoor life, however unpredictable the weather.

Tweed Caps

The ubiquitous waxed jacket and wellington combination requires one final touch, the headgear. Women choose woollen or fake fur hats, or follow in the footsteps of the late Queen, and sport a simple square of brightly patterned silk, folded in half to make a triangle and tied in a neat bow under the chin.

Tweed caps are a popular choice for men, since they are both warm and water resistant. Their history can be traced back to a 1571 an Act of Parliament, which decreed that on Sundays and holidays all males aged six and over, who were not members of the nobility, should wear a woven wool cap. Although this Act was later repealed, the ‘flat cap’ had become the mark of the working man. At the other end of the spectrum members of the aristocracy and Royal Family adopted the tweed cap as practical headgear when out shooting, and it has now become a ubiquitous fashion icon.

The tweed cap is an outstanding testament to the beauty and utility of Scotland’s famous fabric, which has its roots in the Outer Hebrides, where islanders hand-wove their own wool to make a cloth that would help them withstand the harsh winters. This rough hand-dyed woollen fabric had a soft, open texture and was usually woven with a plain weave, or a herringbone or twill structure.

Tweed really took off when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert fell in love with Scotland, purchasing Balmoral Castle in 1852. Here they enjoyed hunting, fishing and shooting, and Britain’s aristocracy followed their monarch’s lead. Estate-owners wanted to provide distinctive clothing for their staff, and estate tweeds were invented. A large range of distinctive tweeds were woven to mirror the earthy colours of the Scottish landscape and reflect the estate owner’s pride. These were appropriated by the fashion industry in the 20th century and tweed became an international phenomenon.

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