FOXHUNTING is probably as well known for its attire as for its horses and hounds. Say “foxhunting” to the average citizen, and the first image that will spring to his mind will almost certainly be the iconic red coat that Masters and huntsmen (and male hunt members who have been awarded their colors) traditionally wear. The clothes foxhunters wear are important to the sport, and not just for fashion. For one thing, the attire a foxhunter wears has a lot of meaning attached to it, much as military uniforms do. Some of the foxhunting uniform’s signs and symbols are subtle, like the tradition of professional hunt staff members wearing the ribbons dangling down from the back of their hunt caps, rather than stitched up, as other riders wear them. Or the “code of coat buttons” by which you can quickly discern a Master (four brass buttons) from a Master hunting hounds (five brass buttons).
While in England recently, we decided to explore several of the oldest and most prestigious clothiers patronized by generations of foxhunters; many are still serving the military, too, which also has a long historic connection to the chase.
Our improvised tour took us first to the London suburb of Dulwich, where the famous hat and helmet makers Patey have their workroom at the back of a tiny alleyway.
Patey has been making hats and helmets for more than 200 years, and the process doesn’t seem to have changed much since then. The first step is to put the conformature on your head, kind of a scary-looking process, although our brave houndblogger volunteer (pictured above) appears undaunted. It might look like a medieval torture device, but the conformature is painless–though it is a bit heavy, as you might expect, considering it’s basically a metal top hat.
The conformature recreates the exact shape of the crown of your head. On top, the machine has a little lid with a card in it. Once he’s fit the conformature properly on your head, the Patey representative shuts the lid, and a series of pins mark the card in a smaller version of your crown shape (and I am told, by the way, that a peanut-shaped head like mine is entirely normal!). Patey keeps your card on file, and that is the form they use to make your bespoke helmet. (Before Patey’s workers make the actual helmet, the pattern needs to be enlarged from fileable card-size to actual head size, and there’s another machine that expands the pattern)
Patey keeps large cabinets whose drawers are stuffed with measurements going back two decades.
Patey makes its riding helmets from a material called “goss,” which is made out of four layers of linen coated with a special shellac paste called “coodle.” Patey cures the goss for five months before steam-heating it and shaping a helmet out of it. Patey workers manipulate layers of warmed goss around a wooden hat block (this takes about five hours per helmet). The block is your very own conform block, a wooden version of your head that Patey makes from the pin-prick pattern the conformature produced (kind of puts a new twist on the term “blockhead,” doesn’t it?).
The proto-hat dries for a week on the conform block. When it’s dry, it’s ready for trimming and finishing–essentially, covered with velvet and trimmed with the traditional ribbon on the back and, if you’ve ordered one, a chin harness.
The hat-trimmers use heavy irons to smooth out the velvet on the hunt cap, and these irons are kept warming over small, round fires at the workshop.
A custom Patey riding helmet will set you back about $600, depending on the exchange rate.
Patey is famous among the hunting set for its riding helmets and top hats, but the company has been making military caps for at least as long as it has been equipping equestrians.
The military hats cost less, but they make up the bulk of Patey’s business in terms of volume (riding caps do in terms of revenue). Riding caps take about six to seven man-hours each, whereas a military cap only takes about one and a half man-hours.
Patey emphatically does not give tours, so we owe thanks to our contact there. We wondered whether he was a great hat-wearer himself or whether he looked at hats the way a baker must look at pastry at the end of a long day. “I never wear hats,” he admitted with a laugh.
We took a train into the heart of London next to visit Dege & Skinner on Savile Row, famous for its hunt coats. Many of you might have encountered Mr. Skinner himself, either in England or on his annual travels through America with his measuring tape, taking custom orders.
The firm grew out of two concerns, one founded by German tailor Jacob Dege in 1865 and the other established by the Skinner family around the same time. The two first merged in 1910, when Jacob’s youngest son Arthur and a young member of the Skinner family, William, founded their own firm on Jermyn Street in London. The original Dege and Skinner association ended just two years later when Arthur Dege returned to his family’s tailoring company after the deaths of his two brothers, and William Skinner died after a riding accident.
But the sons’ friendship and two-year stint together in the tailoring business had bonded the Dege and Skinner families. After William Skinner’s untimely death, Jacob Dege paid for his sons’ educations, and one of them, William “Tim” Skinner joined Dege’s firm. The elder Dege died in 1918, but Tim Skinner had become a fixture. He was instrumental in building the firm’s military tailoring accounts–an important matter during World War II, when clothes rationing nearly wiped out the company’s civilian market for custom-tailored suits.
The Skinner family eventually purchased the firm after the war. The company still operated as J. Dege & Sons but continued to employ both Deges and Skinners, and in 2000 it eventually adopted the name Dege & Skinner in 2000.
The company’s work history is even more colorful. Before World War II, Dege bought another firm, Wilkinson & Son, which specialized in robe-making, diplomatic attire, and court dress and had made the coronation robes for every English monarch from King William IV to King George VI.
“This somewhat esoteric branch of the tailoring trade came into its own at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953,” the Dege company history says, “when there was a sudden demand for velvet Court dress, diplomatic uniforms, robes for Knights of the Garter, Thistle, and Bath, and, of course, peers’ Coronation robes and coronets.”
During “a few months of frantic activity,” the history relates, “robes which had lain in mothballs since 1937, and survived the Blitz and the subsequent flooding of the basement by the River Conduit, were resurrected and refurbished. Hundreds of silver balls on the tops of coronets were unscrewed, polished, and made good. The entire firm was in attendance at Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953, robing the Peers of the Realm.”
More recently, Dege designed and made the uniforms for “the world’s first-ever Camel Pipe Band for the Royal Oman Police.” (Be honest, you never even knew there was a Camel Pipe Band, did you?)
So, needless to say, if you buy a Dege & Skinner coat, you are joining some very elite company.
Dege & Skinner’s hunt coats are works of art–very, very sturdy art–and their design has changed very little since the early 1900s.
Dege & Skinner sales manager Darren Tiernan was kind enough to walk us through the custom-tailoring process, which starts with measuring and photographing the customer. Why the photos? So the tailors can see exactly how your clothes fit, what unusual aspects you might have, such as one shoulder being lower than the other, for example. You probably wouldn’t even notice that kind of thing about yourself until a Dege measuring tape unfurled along your appendages and the photographs came back, but quirks of posture and physique have an important effect on how your coat hangs on you. Dege understands.
Your measurements and photographs, as well as swatches of the fabric you’ve selected for your coat (or, if you have won the lottery recently, your coats, plural), all go into a large brown envelope which will serve as your permanent record, more or less, at Dege. They do like to take remeasurements regularly.
Your bespoke hunt coat will begin life as a series of brown paper cut-outs that essentially form the pattern of your very own coat.
The needle-and-thread artistry takes place around the corner from Dege & Skinner’s store, in workshops where your coat becomes the warm and wonderful thing you will (providing you lay off the steak dinners and the double-fudge sundaes) keep for the rest of your life and possibly pass on in your will to only the most worthy and deserving of your beneficiaries.
“They do become heirlooms,” said Tiernan, who has seen Dege coats still in active service after 40 hunt seasons. “People pass them down, and people often don’t want to wear anything else.”
A Dege hunt coat will cost you about $3,700 but will, we are assured, last so many years that, actually, it’s really only costing you a few dollars a year. It costs a bit extra to get the snappy Tattersalls lining above the skirt, but what about other features, like the poacher’s pocket and the ventile lining (treated cotton on the skirt that helps preserve it from horse sweat and mud)? Absolutely standard, of course.
The coats come in a range of weights, from lightweight cavalry twill to a 32-ounce cavalry twill that Tiernan described as “nigh on bulletproof.”
“I think people come to us because they want traditional, proper hunting clothes,” Tiernan said. “The hunt coat’s design is tried and true. It’s not done for aesthetics; it’s what makes you comfortable while you’re in the saddle.”
“In the saddle” is key. Tiernan points out that sporting coats, whether for riding or shooting, are totally different to tailor than regular civilian attire. “When you’re making a sporting coat, all the rules change from civilian clothes, because you’re accommodating different posture,” he explained.
In addition to robing Peers of the Realm and you, Dege has “regularly won contracts from Her Majesty’s Government for the manufacture of Ceremonial Tunics and Frockcoats for Officers of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, Household Cavalry, and the Guards Division,” informs the company’s official history. “Dege uniforms are thus worn on every state occasion, and, in fact, it is the only firm in the world to make officer’s Dress Jackets for the King’s Troop.”
So if you’ve got one of their Hunt Coats, wear it with Pride!
A point of interest before we leave Savile Row … on the wall at Dege & Skinner, we found a 1986 photograph of some members of the King’s Troop, and one of the officers was Captain C. J. Seed, now better known as the MFH and huntsman of England’s Avon Vale pack.
Just around the corner from Dege & Skinner, and directly above their workshop on Clifford Street, is Schnieder Boots (incorporating W. & H. Gidden saddlers, too). Schnieder’s (pronounced Schneeder’s, not Schnyder’s), has been making custom boots by hand since 1907 and has been run in that time by three generations of Schnieders. The current proprietor is Rudolf Schnieder, who also, incidentally, breeds and owns high-level event horses. He and his wife owned one that competed in the 1996 Atlanta summer Olympic Games, aptly named Mr. Bootsie!
Schnieder’s shop will introduce you to boots you never even thought of before. Some even he never thought of before! When we asked him to describe the oddest request he ever got, he said it was the champagne-colored leather boots with black patent tops. Not for the hunt field, of course. While we were visiting we also spotted a pair of red leather riding boots. One hates to ask.
Schnieder also has dealt with some unusual size requests. He has, he said, made boots as large as a mind-boggling (not to mention stirrup-boggling) size 18. He told us that the larger boot sizes are much easier than small sizes and narrow calves, for the simple reason that it’s a lot harder for a bootmaker to squeeze his arm and hand into a small boot to work on it!
Schnieder offers hunt boots in wax calf or box calf, the difference being that wax calf must be boned–essentially, polished and refurbished with a deer bone–to develop high gloss. Wax calf is higher-maintenance, one supposes, but on the other hand you can literally rub scratches out of it by boning it,and it’s very heavy and durable. The enormously tall boots Schnieder makes for the Household Cavalry are wax calf, and it’s also the preferred leather for professional hunt staff, Schnieder said.
Schnieder says that one of the most important aspects of his job has nothing to do with tanned leather at all. It’s advising his customers on what boot style is proper for their particular discipline.
“If they are just going to be riding around, it doesn’t matter,” he said with a shrug. “But if they are going hunting, I must be sure that they have the proper boot.”
Many new riders love the look of brown or patent tops on hunt boots, but, as Schnieder points out, they’re not for everyone. “In that case, I might gently ask them, ‘Are you a Master?’ or questions like that to steer them to the proper boot if they are planning to hunt,” Schnieder explained.
“But the client is king,” he added. “He gets what he wants.”
About a half-dozen people work on each pair of bespoke boots at Schnieder’s. They’re a team of different specialists: one might cut the pattern, another will cut the leather, another makes the upper parts, and yet another does the soles.
Schnieder’s is easily the most fragrant shop we visited, and it’s no wonder: there are 2,000 pairs of boots on the premises, and there are also quite a few saddles and bridles.
“We have everything connected with the equestrian,” Schnieder said. “Everything.”
We saw everything from a sidesaddle to waxed cotton jackets to wooden boot trees, and pretty much everything in between (including leather accessories).
If the world can’t come to the upstairs shop on Clifford Street, all isn’t lost: Schnieder’s exports to 78 countries.
Our last stop is not in London, but in Hampshire, at Calcutt & Sons. This tack shop is nationally renowned among English hunting people, and it is the very best international source for second-hand coats, saddles, and boots that we know of. They do custom work and new off-the-rack sales, too, we should hasten to add.
Calcutt’s is famed as a general supplier of hunt clothes and horse supplies (their stock includes beagle stockings, which must intrigue the general populace!), but among huntsmen it is known for something else, too–and this is why we included it on our hunting tour. Calcutt’s also is the home of Keat, the maker of hunting horns for more than 200 years.
Keat, or more properly Henry Keat, was founded in 1795 and has been a famed manufacturer of hunting, coach, and tandem horns, according to its company motto. The last in the long line of Keat hornmakers retired some years ago, leaving the English hunting horn field largely to Swaine Adeney (which also is famous for making hunt whips, though its equestrian department had dwindled, sadly, to a tiny corner of the shop, no bigger than a walk-in closet, when we visited last year).
Eventually, Calcutt’s bought a half-interest in the Keat business, hired a professional musical instrument repair specialist, and revived the historic line of horns. The horns come in nickel, copper, and silver, unbanded or plain, and with a choice of silver or nickel mouthpiece. Their prices range from about $182 to about $1,590 for the banded hallmarked silver model with a silver mouthpiece.
You wouldn’t necessarily think hunt horns would be in large demand. You’d think one would last forever, wouldn’t you? Not so, said the proprietor of Calcutt’s. “You’d be amazed the many ways you can kill a horn,” he observed, adding that he knew of quite a few that had been crushed by hound trucks, stomped by their owners’ horses, or simply lost. Asked how many horns Keat sells annually, he came up with a surprising number that gives you some idea how risky the life of a hunting horn can be: Keat, through Calcutt’s, sells an average of one horn a day.
Curious fact: a blacksmith is involved in the early process of making a huntsman’s horn, molding the horn from a sheet of metal into its cone shape. Who knew?
That concludes our lengthy journey around some of foxhunting’s historic suppliers. All right, strictly speaking it wasn’t about hounds, but, on the other hand, these businesses have grown up around the hound, and without hounds they would not be here. We appreciate them and their support for our sport!