What’s the future for hunting dress?

  • To be “In the Pink” in the 18th century was to be wearing one of Thomas Pink’s hunting coats. Pink’s red jackets were the best hunting coats money could buy and were seen as the height of fashion both on and off the hunting field.

    When the standardised code for hunting dress was compiled at the beginning of the 20th century, pinks became the privilege of a master or hunt official and fashion became less important. “Tradition and safety, not fashion, governs correct dress in the hunting field,” claims the New Forest Hunt’s guide to correct hunting dress.

    While pink coats might not be seen on today’s catwalks, there is still something splendid about them. In oil paintings, at opening meets and at Christmas, the dashes of startling red blazing out from the British countryside arouse feelings of nostalgia. But some hunts now feel these traditional items create the wrong impression and are opting for the muted tones of wearing ratcatcher (tweeds) instead.

    In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries hunting was a popular pastime of the privileged classes with the “masters” financing all aspects of the hunt, including breeding and rearing the hounds and keeping a stable of horses. While hunts no longer operate in this way, fox hunting has failed to throw off its exclusive image. Some believe that adjusting the dress of hunt staff and followers may help improve the public’s perception of those individuals involved.

    “I think we should all wear ratcatchers,” says Kippy Marles, master of the Silverton, “People always think it’s a class war”. The Silverton are having their AGM later this month and if it is decided that pink coats should not be worn, the change will take effect immediately.

    “Of course it is totally ridiculous that we should all go hunting in rugby shirts,” says Alicia Fox-Pitt, who hunts regularly in Kent, adding “But if pink coats are ruining livelihoods then we shouldn’t wear them — we have to give a bit, traditional dress is part of the reason country pursuits are so alien to people who live in the town.”

    Michael Clayton, author and historian and former editor of Horse & Hound feels that any decision about hunt clothing should remain in the hands of the master of each individual hunt.

    “In the post-ban hunting world, I think traditional hunt coats should remain optional to the wishes of the masters of a hunt”, Clayton explains. “Some may feel they are only welcome on farms if they do wear hunt dress; in other areas this may be totally different. The UK hunting field has always been remarkably diverse.”

    However, he does not believe that changes to the clothing worn by hunt staff wear will have any effect on the attempt to repeal the hunting ban.

    “Although much of the Labour opposition was disgracefully class-based, and not due to an understanding of the welfare issues, abandoning hunt dress will not in itself result in the repeal of the current ban on traditional hunting,” he says.

    Pat Hudson, master of the New Forest shares this view: “I think it should be up to individual hunts to decide. We are going to carry on wearing pink – we have taken the decision to carry on dressing as we always have.”

    The New Forest’s decision to uphold tradition is influenced by their hunting terrain. “We are a high profile hunt who can only go on trails, so we are always going to be noticed whatever we wear”, Hudson says, illustrating how a standardised move towards wearing ratcatcher is not going to be suitable for all hunts. In contrast, a meeting of Hampshire hunts at the beginning of the season saw the Tedworth deciding to hunt in ratcatcher.

    “I think maintaining productive links with farmers and landowners is the priority for Hunts — and masters must make up their own minds whether, in their particular country, traditional hunting dress helps or hinders this,” concludes Clayton.

    While it’s far too early to say whether Britain’s traditional hunting dress will ultimately find itself confined to foreign shores, such as France, Belgium and India, many hunts are now seriously considering the future of their pink coats.

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