Not long ago the preserve of stalkers, plus-fours are having a real moment, says Marcus Janssen
Plus-fours catch the eye
A few seasons ago, heading home following a day’s shooting, I stopped off for a coffee at South Mimms services on the M1. Before I had even got to the front of the queue at Costa, I’d been approached twice by complete strangers who had spotted me in my plus-fours.
The first, a beefy chap in an Everton shirt, enquired if my time machine had conked out in the wrong century. His mate asked me to send his regards to Queen Victoria. A few moments later a lass asked me, quite earnestly, if I would do some Morris dancing for her and her equally inebriated pals. That was the last time I went into a service station in my plus-fours.
The truth is, we do look a bit of a sight in our shooting gear when we’re out of context. Even my wife’s family, who are a bit posh but not from a country sports background, find it amusing when I get back home after a day’s sport in my plus-fours. They try to hide it, but even behind their mugs of tea, I can detect their gleeful glances at one another. I’m pretty sure they’ve had quiet conversations about my questionable dress sense.
Some argue that breeks, along with ties in the shooting field, are anachronistic. And let’s be honest, they have a fair point. I mean, we don’t need to wear baggy tweed breeches and 100% cotton shirts that don’t breathe or wick sweat very well, buttoned up to the neck and festooned with silk ties. We’d be far more comfortable in a pair of waterproof trousers and a nice stretchy crew made out of something warm, soft and breathable. Sod the buttons and tie, and forget the tweed waistcoat and cap. We’d be comfy and dry all day, and we could stop off at Starbucks and matey-boy with his time-machine quips would leave us in peace.
But we don’t. We all insist on dressing up like Lord Walsingham in our houndstooth tweed suits and bright red stockings. “It’s respect for the quarry,” I’ve heard it said on more than one occasion. What nonsense. There isn’t a pheasant in the land that could give a flying duck what you’re wearing when you’re on your peg.
“It is a sign of respect for the traditions of the sport,” is another biscuit that is often waved about at elevenses. Honestly, what utter codswallop. Times have changed and we ought to change with them. Guns should feel comfortable turning up wearing whatever attire they choose. And we should embrace the incredible advances that have been made in fabric technology. Gladly, there does appear to be a very gradual shift towards a slightly more diverse array of apparel in the shooting field.
Some years ago now, Lord James Percy phoned me at quite short notice, having presumably tried everyone else in his contact book, to ask if I would like to join him for a day’s shooting at Linhope. Obviously, I accepted the invitation with the sort of enthusiasm with which a Labrador might accept a scrap of beef proffered beneath the dining table.
On the big day, I emerged from my bedroom in my finest tweed plus-fours, a pair of turkey red shooting socks, gleaming brogues and a silk tie in the finest double Windsor knot you’ve ever seen, only to find Lord James and his other guests all relaxing around the inglenook fireplace in tweed trousers and half-untucked shirts with not a tie in sight. Suddenly, I felt like a Morris dancer they’d hired to provide the pre-shoot entertainment. It turns out that the modern-day Walsinghams and Ripons of the shooting world, the really smart chaps we’ve purportedly been emulating all these years, have moved on since the late 1800s.
The traditionalists reading this will no doubt be tut-tutting and wondering why, now that I am so enlightened and clearly so vehemently critical of unnecessarily old-fashioned garb, I don’t practice what I preach and wear whatever I want on shoot days. Well, I kind of do. No, I don’t wear techy outdoor gear, and yes, I do generally wear a tie. I also tend to wear plus-fours instead of twos these days, along with a baker boy-style tweed cap, but that’s largely because I like Peaky Blinders.
The reason why I choose to wear a tie and a pair of plus-fours is not because they conform to someone else’s standards of what is acceptable, but because the formality adds to the sense of occasion. Like putting on a morning suit for a wedding breakfast, they make the day feel special, even before it has begun. Indeed, a day’s driven shooting shouldn’t feel like just another ordinary day, in my opinion. The anticipation and excitement, and the ritual of getting my kit ready the night before, is all part of it, and the plus-fours and tie, along with the drawing of pegs and elevenses, are a part of that ceremony.
That’s not to say, however, that the wearing of plus-fours or breeks is purely ceremonial. Let’s not forget that they were adopted by our Victorian and Edwardian forebears because they served a purpose in the field: they were inherently practical. And believe it or not, they still are.
Tweed breeks have a lot going for them. They’re warm, comfortable, rainwater runs off them and over the top of your boots rather than down and into them (you even get tweed impregnated with Teflon, and breeks with Gore-Tex liners these days), and their generous cut allows you to clear stiles without popping any seams.
And, of course, tweed is hard-wearing, comes in every shade, hue, weft, weave and weight imaginable, and can be tailored to your own taste. I like subdued natural tones — soft earthy greens, browns and blues — but I have friends who see their breeks and shooting socks as bold statement pieces. Indeed, the fact that dandies far more stylish than me have a penchant for flamboyant and gaudy tweed is surely evidence that the fabric of the countryside is bang on trend.
When game shooting, what is the correct way to wear long socks/stockings with plus-twos or breeks? Is it socks on…
In all seriousness, at Schöffel, the demand for tweed is as high as it has ever been, despite the cost of wool pushing prices up in recent years.
What is also interesting is that we have seen a noticeable increase in demand for baggier plus-fours (rather than plus-twos) in recent years. Don’t get me wrong, plus-twos still outsell plus-fours, but five years ago, the only people who sported plus-fours or sixes were keepers on very posh estates, or people with very short legs. Nowadays, it has almost become cool to wear a pair of baggy fours or sixes, like Cillian Murphy in a baker boy with a shotgun over his shoulder.
Which brings me to tweed trousers. There is an unwritten rule in shooting that if you are not a duke, or lord at the very least, you are not entitled to wear tweed trousers in the shooting field. Despite that, I am told by Martin Brocklehurst, who sells a lot of tweed trousers from his excellent store in Bakewell, that their popularity is definitely on the up. We’re even thinking of making some Schöffel ones.
There is no question that, despite how much of a plonker we might look in the queue at Costa, we are showing signs of shedding our anachronistic penchant for baggy tweed breeches. Which is really quite lovely, when you think about it.