I was astonished when Christopher [Woodward, Garden Museum Director] asked me to contribute to this ‘gardening in style’ series. I’m sure everyone else is astonished too as I’m certainly not a fashionista and rarely feel the need to look extraordinary in any way at all, in or out of the garden.
I think my more stylish colleagues in the flower world despair. One of them once told me I’d be “fine just as you are” for an 80s themed party. This was in 2010 and I was in my normal clothes.
Florists traditionally love a theme. Many would seize this opportunity to “garden in style” with witty garden-themed outfits, and matching floral crowns, for their Finnis-inspired photograph.
I wonder what Valerie Finnis would make of all that?
Did she style her subjects? Did she allow sartorial spontaneity? Are her pictures accurate depictions of those gardeners at work or did they dress in clothes they might never really wear for gardening, just to delight Finnis and her camera?
Whatever the answer, the resulting photographs have become the archetypical images of great gardeners gardening. So what I wonder is, could anyone look like a better or even a great gardener too if they dressed like them?
The question might well be answered in a new series on BBC1 called “You Are What You Wear”. According to the BBC website, it will be presented by the ‘celebrity’ Rylan Clarke-Neal and ‘a squad of the UK’s most exciting stylists’…. in case you’re worried that Rylan might be too dull on his own.
But I won’t be watching Rylan’s new programme for the answer, as I don’t really subscribe to the logic. And besides, today’s great gardeners would have a very legitimate laugh if I put that theory to the test in a Garden Museum Newsletter. Luckily then, my modest gardening self-identity does not rely on stylish gardening clothes for validation.
And besides, I think gardening should be a total escape from clothes…. not in an Ian and Barbara Pollard sort of way but in a gentle “does it really matter?” sort of way.
As you might have guessed, I hadn’t given it all much thought before this so hadn’t realised how few dedicated ‘gardening clothes’ I actually own. And the ones I do own are repeatedly worn, and seldom cleaned, until they are completely un-wearable. Reading this shocks me too but remember that I am not trying to give the impression I am a great gardener through my clothes.
So what do I wear gardening?
I will start with my hands.
Perhaps foolishly, I do not share Isabel Bannerman’s devotion to gloves. This has resulted in many bloody encounters with thorns, glass, stones and all manner of stinging and biting insects. I’ve even acquired one or two Whitlow fingers over the years. If you’ve managed to avoid a Whitlow finger as a gardener, you are very lucky indeed. I’ve fainted both times my doctor lanced mine. But I still cannot garden with gloves. Maybe I like the feeling of soil…. the magic of handling earth. If dealing with brambles or nettles, I have a very smart pair of Highgrove Leather gauntlets (#boughtnotgifted as they say on Instagram accounts where one suspects product placement) but they’re only worn in extremis.
Because of my gloveless state, my hands get very mucky, so I almost always wear an old worn pair of jeans to wipe them on. I have tried corduroy and moleskin but I find the texture won’t remove dirt as efficiently and they look grubby more quickly. Somehow denim absorbs dirt and doesn’t look too awful. I never wear shorts for gardening. Being Irish, the skin on my legs is a pale greenish-white and burns like a vampire’s in the sun. It’s also easy to injure bare knees on thorns, stones and the like so I sweat it out in long jeans most of the year.
Above the jeans I always wear a shirt. My wardrobe here in Worcestershire has two shelves of shirts, all neatly folded. One is for work shirts and the other is not. The work shirts are mostly damaged goods and several were my fathers. He died in 1999 so they have character. They are my favourites and I feel he’d enjoy seeing the garden from that angle. I should say that the shirts are washed very frequently, unlike the jeans or my two gardening pullovers.
These two pullovers are rather grandly made of cashmere. One is green and more moth hole and rip than knit. The other is blue and slightly more presentable.
Cashmere might seem a bit louche for gardening but I had a terrible experience with an aran in 1992 that put me off for life. I was photographed for an article in the Evening Standard: “The New Wave Of Irish Talent! They’re Over Here and They’re Taking Over!” was the headline. Perhaps at the time this did not sound quite so threatening or xenophobic as it might now, I don’t remember.
An eclectic mix of ‘talented Irish men’ was to be photographed wearing clothes by Irish designers, all stocked by Simpsons of Piccadilly.
I arrived for my allocated photo shoot on a very hot July day. The stylists chose an earthy “gardener –florist vibe” with heavy Donegal tweed trousers and panic-inducing layers of scratchy Aran knitwear worn, a la mode, without a shirt. Perspiration does not adequately describe my loss of moisture that long hot afternoon. The next day I developed chickenpox and whilst I can’t blame the designs for the disease, it certainly converted me to cashmere.
Over these, if the weather is cold, I have a selection of two well-loved fleeces… one sleeveless and the other with sleeves. Both have pockets full of useful things like bits of string and tissues along with less useful things like putrefying fruit from last autumn and the odd bit of glass you put there to avoid cutting your finger. Our dog, Bindi, can be tempted to stay in any part of the garden if given one of these fleeces to lie upon so they have a reassuringly ripe doggy smell at all times.
The final potential layer is a horribly expensive, totally waterproof green schōffel raincoat that was an excellent investment. It replaces the cold, unfriendly slap of a certain brand of waxed country coat and I wish I’d discovered them years ago.
On sunny days, I always wear a hat to protect me from the sun. I used to wear woven straw hats but three years ago I bought a Finnis-worthy, wide-brimmed cloth hat in New Zealand, where they know a thing or two about sun protection. It looks like a cross between a topi and a halo and has become my go-to gardening hat. It is comfortable, washable (though it hasn’t been) light, and unflappable.
We may have contrary hand preferences but Isabel Bannerman and I definitely are in agreement when it comes to feet. I detest my feet being wet or cold when I am gardening. Being tall, the blood has a long way to travel so socks are important: long and thick for winter and thin cotton ones for summer. I have to admit to the odd cashmere sock too…. anything to avoid cold toes.
To keep them dry, I have one pair of long, knee-length gumboots and one pair of short ankle gumboots. After 32 gardening years, I prefer these to any other type of boot, shoe or sneaker when gardening in my style.