Couture clash: are you a dressing gown or overalls gardener?
Practicality nearly always trumps fashion in our gardening wardrobes, but Alice Vincent feels the need to make room for some workwear chic… and even a pair of Crocs. Illustration Alice Pattullo
It was over a glass of wine, on a scorching day at Helmingham Hall, that I realised I’d been caught out. “You wear Crocs, don’t you?” asked Carly Eck, the effortlessly chic fashion historian who was doing a talk the next day, as part of the Garden Museum Literary Festival. She’d been researching gardening clothes. Seemingly, my too-big, grey plastic shoes had crept into my Instagram stories more often than I’d realised.
At first, I didn’t want to let the Crocs in the house, knowing they were a slippery slope towards a sartorial nadir. A hand-me-down from my brother-in-law, they sat by the back door as I stubbornly put on ankle-length Hunters to go out in the garden. One fateful day I realised it was just easier to slip them on, and now the neighbours are treated to the sight of me in a variety of dressing gowns (a flamboyant Desmond & Dempsey number when it’s warm; towelling when it’s not) and Crocs doing my morning flowerbed rounds.
Women have been worse off in the garden; having to keep up appearances for decades after gardening was finally considered an acceptable thing to do in the 19th century.
I’m not alone – in the nightwear, at least. As garden historian Advolly Richmond has pointed out in the Garden Museum’s online series on gardening clothes, avid gardeners are guilty of not bothering with getting properly dressed when there are seedlings to be inspected, or pots to water.
I’ve always loved learning what gardeners wear. To garden is to straddle creativity and labour; to do delicate, thoughtful work while wrestling with the elements or wading through anaerobic compost. It’s as much a physical act as it is an artistic one. Clothes must be practical, ideally so they don’t distract from the task in hand. But gardeners are often aesthetes, and often frugal. It’s interesting to see what happens when these things intersect.
Monty Don famously despises jeans (‘they are absurd items of clothing,’ he wrote in 2005), but Derek Jarman ‘loved’ working in them, and other vintage workwear – we have hung a photograph of his overalls hanging on the line and blown out by the Dungeness wind, in the hallway. Vita Sackville-West married in gold silk brocade but you’re more likely to see photographs of her in a pleasingly androgynous combination of blazer, button-down, plus fours and knee-high boots. Katharine S White, who reviewed seed catalogues for The New Yorker in the 1960s and 70s, wore Ferragamos and tweed suits. In her book Unearthed, grower Claire Ratinon explains that it was her partner who introduced her to Flexothane dairy-farmer trousers, now an outdoor-wear staple. Ask most gardeners and layers, pockets and patched-up cashmere are likely to come up.
I’m in Monty’s anti-denim camp – they get filthy too easily and take too long to dry
Traditionally, women have been worse off in the garden; having to keep up appearances for decades after gardening was finally considered an acceptable thing to do in the 19th century. In The Gentlewoman’s Book of Gardening, published in 1892, Edith L Chamberlain urged her readers to go for skirts that were not ‘skimpy’, to better enable stooping, as well as a boneless bodice and tight sleeves. Things are considerably better 230 years on, but it’s still far more difficult than it should be to find sensibly priced workwear for women.
When I gardened on a balcony I mostly limited my wardrobe to a puffa jacket and wore pyjamas more often than I care to admit. Graduating to a garden has required more substantial attire. I’m in Monty’s anti-denim camp – they get filthy too easily and take too long to dry – and have flirted with some Carrier Company cotton drill trousers, which look chic. The fact I’m always finding bits of twine in my pockets suggests I garden in other clothes besides. The epiphany, though, came a couple of summers ago when I had my grandfather’s overalls tailored to fit me with pockets in all the right places. Navy and well-worn in, they go over leggings, thermals and puffa jackets effortlessly, and lend just the right sense of occasion to proceedings. I am yet to find a replacement for the Crocs.
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