In our series on gardening in style, we pay tribute to Valerie Finnis’ portraits of the great gardeners of her day. We’re asking some of our favourite garden people, “What do you wear to garden, and why?” Our latest contributor is garden designer, writer and presenter on BBC Two’s Gardeners’ World, Arit Anderson:
I have to start with saying what an honour it is to be asked to write about my ‘garden style’. Seeing who has gone before me in the garden Museum’s series was a little overwhelming as they are the gardening Grandes Fromages, but I thought ‘you can do this Anderson, ‘hort’- couture is your thing!
My background is in clothing, and as I was a retailer for over 25 years, I can’t help but love a good frock and all things sparkly. I did not think about how I would have to amend my wardrobe as I traversed careers to my new-found love of plants and gardening. No therapy was required to wean me off Prada and on to peonies, and the move from Gucci to geraniums was quite seamless actually. But swapping my addiction from fashion to flowers has left me with a closet that I’m loathed to prune.
I can remember at age 5 my infant schoolteacher asking me who got me dressed every morning. I thought it was a trick question or that she didn’t like my floral jacket (with obligatory 1970s collar). “Me Miss, I choose my clothes and can dress myself’. I did not expect the raptures of how lovely I looked, and to this day I’m sure she thought it must have been my mother! Little did I know then that I would be part of huge teams dressing the nation!
My sister Michele is a gardener, and with her husband Pete, I thought they would set up my garden, so I could come home after a hard day at Fashion Towers, and waft around dead-heading whilst sipping rosé. I had seen Margot from the comedy series “The Good Life” and knew that it didn’t all have to be like the muck Barbara next door was covered in. I laugh now, as once you’ve put that first plant in, and it grows and greets you every day, muck, you realise, is all part of it.
One thing I noted about my sister, when she came to help me, was even when bum in the air and grafting away, I could sideways glance and note that her mascara was still intact, and the faded imprint of lipstick would be on her lips. Who said there couldn’t be a bit of glamour when working in a garden? It certainly wasn’t Valerie Finnis. The infamous picture of Lady Birley typifies style in the borders. And why wouldn’t you dress up? The plants are putting on a show, and on some level shouldn’t we honour that? Ok, practicality and safety are absolutely important, in our risk adverse world, but maybe a nod to something chic?
If only I practised what I preached, because throw me back to my fashion friends and eyebrows would raise if I sashayed in with one of my ensembles. That said, I did turn up at a client’s one day was already dressed to garden and she said, ‘do go through and feel free to get changed”. I hold on dear to that compliment.
I will have to give you a seasonal split of my attire, (old habits die hard) as that’s how my wardrobe is divided. A lot of what I wear is vintage, or put another way, old clothes that come out time and again. No longer skipping into central London HQ’s I could either start wearing my apparel in the garden or leave them to get moth holed in the wardrobe….no brainer really.
One thing to note is that my shaved head is totally down to gardening. Straightened afro hair is impossible in downpours and humidity, and after several attempts of trying to find a look that would work, there was only one solution – clippers. I yelped as part of the old me fell to the ground and was then swept up into a dustpan and binned. It had to go; unlike Samson I didn’t lose strengthen, but would power on.
In fashion terms this was personally my least favourite season. I used to dread the idea of getting my skinny pins out and back in the day, floaty floral dresses really weren’t me. I preferred the structure and formality that was the backbone of autumn winter, and that all imperfections could be hidden under trousers or a coat.
Let’s start at the top. On a super-hot day, I will wear a cap, my cotton Converse is one of my solid faves or a straw hat. For filming hats are not really encouraged if possible as it hides your face, which is a shame when one is perspiring profusely!
When it comes to tops, I’m one of those ladies who luckily doesn’t have upper arm phobia, as in the warm months sleeveless tops are preferred. Of course, you have to take your chances on scratches and rashes, but that’s the price you pay to air your armpits. I have two favourite lightweight cotton smock tops, same style but two colourways. A madras check by Rützou, a great Danish brand.
I also love t-shirts that I had bought from All Saints years ago. Soft greys, and neutrals, which is my khaki equivalent. Oh, and I have a lovely silk embellished Indian top that is so old and falling apart but you can’t beat silk when it’s hot, and it still feels glamorous!
For bottoms I find denim too restrictive, so my go to is cargo pants, lots of pockets to stuff tools, the odd flower-head and twine into. I used to have Carhartt and Maharishi, but with so many High St equivalents I buy them now, I even have a pair with beaded embroidery on them…. remember I said I like sparkle.
When it comes to being in the garden in public you won’t find me in shorts, but in the comfort of my home, then it’s only the neighbours I subject to bare skin. Often donned with a boob tube, crazy I know, but it’s a sure-fire way to up my Vitamin D.
If I’m at home and its hot then I will wear Birkenstocks or Havaiana’s flip flops, but only for light duties, otherwise its back to my steel toe caps.
It’s all about layers. With little hair I do have to wear a hat. I’ve never had great circulation so if I get cold the poor hands and feet suffer and my cashmere beanie from Daylesford definitely helps with heat retention. But if it’s raining, I just love my Ilse Jacobsen Sou’wester. Practical with a dose of style (Danish designer again say no more), and with matching raincoat, I do feel a little less bedraggled in the pouring rain!
Now one thing I haven’t cracked yet is Vogue-worthy waterproof bottoms. My Mountain Warehouse over-trousers limply hang over my hips, and one bend down to many and they definitely head south. Whilst flares are clearly needed to get over one’s boots, once that deed is done, I always have the raised eyebrow brigade in the back of my mind. I must work harder on finding a suitable pair.
A long sleeve bamboo top is the base layer, followed by another if the temperature demands, then a short sleeve t-shirt over that. Quite an urban look, with the cargos, but town is where I live. I do adore knitwear, and once the moth-holes appear in inappropriate places, I then relegate that piece to garden in. Did I mention scarfs? They are my winter staple. Never knowingly do I not have a scarf with or around me. An instant heat booster and looks absolutely fabulous on top of a muddy jacket. Way too many to list, but a silk kantha from Lisa Taylor Design is worn when I’m feeling decadent and not doing a sweaty dig, any all my others normally have a pop of colour to lift a gloomy day.
To wear gloves or not to wear gloves, that is the question. The answer is yes, I do, but not always. I found a fleece-lined thermal pair. Yay great I thought, but soon realised the only chore you can do in them is carry a trug, no fine work, but my hands were warm.
And finally, if I know I’m crossing my boundary at any point, then I do wear red lipstick and channel Rhoda, Lady Birley. You can take the girl out of fashion, but you can’t take fashion out of the girl. ☺