Why do country men of a certain type sport brightly coloured trousers?
So what is it with these fine-wale corduroy trousers in crazy colours, sported almost everywhere – the ‘smart casual’ outfit of choice for a certain posh rural male? And they’re not just any old colour – the coding is quite strict: most common are all shades of red, from baby pink to maroon, and a particularly odd shade of yellow that I’ll call mustard (there are a couple of greens too, but never purple or blue).
The trousers are sported with a rather narrow range of shirts – collars and buttons, natural fabrics (of course) and old-fashioned in cut. Particular varieties of shoes, always leather, are essential and, if it is cold, a knitted jersey – ideally with a humorous pattern – is also required.
It is not of itself a bad look – there have been far worse fashions for men. Grandfathers and fathers of these pink-legged blokes perhaps wore bowler hats, despite the fact that these were originally a working class fashion-item, created because gamekeepers found top hats got knocked off too easily.
The city-gent look (that bowler, a three-piece suit, tie, black lace-up shoes, an impeccably rolled umbrella and an – ideally ancient – briefcase) was de rigeur. Gentlemen also needed not only a morning coat, but two different pairs of trousers (pale stripe for weddings, a wider black
stripe for funerals). Compared to that, a pair of bright red cord trousers seems a mild and not unattractive eccentricity. Interestingly, women have been a bit more subtle about sporting class insignia. When I was a child they were stricter: those pearls that you never took off (“darling, pearls lose their lustre if they aren’t kept warm by skin”) and those silk headscarves.
There may have seemed to be a wide range of colours and patterns, but there really was not. But the dead giveaway was the astonishing (if pointless) art of tying them so that the knot remained precisely on the tip of the chin throughout a long day on a grouse moor in a force eight wind. The only woman who can still pull that look off is the Queen – grubby Barbour, heavy boots and head scarf. When people talk about ‘banning the headscarf’ they do not mean her kind, they mean a completely different kind, even when it looks almost exactly the same.
It is anthropological really. Every group everywhere – especially when it feels half-consciously superior to the other groups around it – makes sartorial choices so that members can find each other in a crowd. We feminists did it in the 1970s with dungarees (they were grossly inconvenient for every possible activity except recognising each other).
To be fully effective, the look has to be a little tricky – not easily imitable by those not really in the gang. Hence the ancient accessories: as well as the red trousers you also need your great grandfather’s – now very shabby – luggage or shotgun case or binoculars (leather lasts well!)
Your ‘uniform’ has to be bizarre enough that no one would wear it by accident and, where the ‘rules’ are complex, not obvious. Whether it is pink trousers or the face piercings of a proper Goth, it is worth looking eccentric if people are looking eccentric with you and ‘others’ feel slightly excluded.
It’s perhaps challenging being a rural toff nowadays: colourful trousers are a cheap price to pay for gang membership.
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Sara Maitland is a writer who lives in Dumfries and Galloway. Her works include A Book of Silence and Gossip from the Forest.