Unspeakable Pursues Uneatable, Fashion Follows
Because I spend a lot of my time writing about fashion, people sometimes question me about my personal style. If I have one at all, it has probably altered very little since I was 10. Back then I was taught to believe that clothes should be of good quality, simple and unobtrusive, practical and hard wearing, and that shoes should be the best you can reasonably afford.
More than anything related to style itself, though, there is a precept I tend to adhere to, one also acquired as a kid. “What is your fashion philosophy?” I was asked on a recent visit to Tucson by a freelance reporter composing an Instagram story.
I found myself repeating a phrase I’d heard throughout a childhood spent substantially on the back of a horse. “I try to be clean and well presented,” I replied, echoing a phrase drummed into me by a succession of trainers, most notably a leathery ex-Olympian who’d grown up in the heyday of the Pony Club.
This nonprofit junior equestrian organization founded in England in the late 1920s migrated to the United States in the ’50s in a rush of postwar Anglophilia that brought with it a surprisingly egalitarian aim — that of making horse sport accessible to everyone. Considering that Americans own more horses per capita than do citizens of any other country, the goal seems eminently sensible
True, the early Pony Club advocates here tended to represent our own entrenched elites, mostly Boston Brahmins or gentry from up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Yet the ideals of horsemanship the Pony Club promulgated were both democratic and pragmatic, the overarching principle being that everything begins with the horse.
If Pony Club seemed too girlie for me as a kid, it is probably justice that I’d eventually end up learning its lessons in adulthood and paying handsomely for the privilege. Of the things my trainer taught me, most crucial was the notion that no self-respecting rider turns up for a horse show, a hunter pace, a point-to-point or even bothers to saddle up for a ride in the woods without first making certain the horse’s mane is brushed, its coat curried and each hoof lifted and picked clean.
Though this may seem superficial, it is anything but, as Mary Motley Kalergis said the other day. “It’s not because we’re fancy-pants,” that riders pay so much attention to appearances, she said. “You’re checking your horse out. It’s all really about horse care.”
Ms. Kalergis is master of foxhounds at the storied Keswick Hunt in Keswick, Va., and the author of a fine oral history of fox hunting in America titled “Foxhunters Speak” (Derrydale Press). When we spoke, Ms. Kalergis had just finished turning one of her four thoroughbreds out after a vigorous morning in the field.
Despite the protests surrounding the mounted pursuit of fox, the sport remains surprisingly robust. A roster kept by the Masters of Foxhounds Association & Foundation lists 151 member hunts active in Canada and the United States, most concentrated on the East Coast with outliers in such unexpected places as Arizona (Grand Canyon Hounds) and Nevada (Red Rock Hounds), country where the quarry is less likely to be fox than coyote.
And however one views the morality of an activity Oscar Wilde once famously condemned as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable,” the sport seems to thrive, and with it some influential traditions and customs of dress. It may sound grandiose to suggest that fox hunting gear is a forerunner of contemporary sportswear or even the concept of clothing whose function entirely dictates form. Yet stand back and you can see how much of the Ralph Lauren equestrian fantasia is built around sporting kit hardly more inherently glamorous than, say, a mechanic’s coveralls.
Every element of a fox hunter’s gear has a clear and specific purpose: woolen Melton jackets coarse enough to repel rain and snow; boots worn knee high to shield legs from brambles and branches; breeches designed for flexibility over jumps and to minimize saddle chafe. Even the traditional waistcoat — whether canary or tattersall check — adds a layer of insulation. “There’s no excuse for being cold on a hunt,” Ms. Kalergis said.
For decades, fox hunters wore flimsy velvet hunt caps more decorative than protective (and, sometimes, top hats that were hardly any use at all), though safety these days trumps vanity. Most hunters now don padded headgear that, however inelegant, is a lot more useful in the event a rider becomes a human cannonball. Even the requisite stock tie and gold safety pin — items fashion has repurposed a thousand times — are fundamentally practical. “I can’t even count the times I’ve used stock tie as a bandage or a sling or a tourniquet,” Ms. Kalergis said.
“The thing about coming to a fox hunt is, though you show up with a horse that’s as clean as if you were going to a horse show, it’s not a competition,” she said. “Clean tack and a clean horse means you’ve gone over every inch and you don’t have a horse with a swollen ankle or a cut inside his leg.”
And turning out in clothes properly suited to what you’re doing has applications outside the hunt field. Utility and suitability are an important part of dressing well, although you wouldn’t necessary know it from all the fashionable types slouching around in fur-lined Gucci mules.
“You know, all these hedge fund gazillionaires come down to Virginia and buy the clothes and a horse that’s way too much for them because they’ve decided they want to live the Ralph Lauren lifestyle,” Ms. Kalergis said. “After the third concussion in the first year, they tend to change their minds.”