Eve Jones says the gilet, which began as a modest garment, has become a sports wardrobe staple that combines function with fashion. It is a status icon in its own rights.
How many people reading this wear a gilet. A fair few, I’ll wager. From modest, practical origins in the 15th century it has become quite the status symbol, subtly, or not so subtly, announcing one’s social and professional persuasions with its form, fabric and the likely or unlikely places it appears. The lightness of this garment has been overshadowed by its shifting shades for centuries. Its journey from peasant into pheasant was marked with many transformations.
THE GILET – A SPORTING WARDROBE STAPLE
The gilet was first worn by European peasants in the 1500s. It provided warmth and allowed for greater mobility while working in the fields. Henry VIII, the 16th century monarch, adopted the garment as a jerkin. Later, the aristocracy wore it over a doublet in a more elaborate form. Women began to wear a silk-lined gilet with dress bodices as men began to adopt slimmer waistcoats in the 18th Century. By the 20th century, these delicacies were also gone, and by World War I, the gilet had been revived in a more functional form. Lined in wool, the garment was worn in the trenches with the infantrymen. In the mainstream fashion stakes for gilets, a quiet period followed. However, a useful modification had been adopted by landed-gentry estate workers who needed a garment which offered warmth and flexibility while hunting, fishing, or shooting.
Around 1980, Barbour – Royal Warrant-holding creator of the iconic waxed cotton jacket – produced its first quilted gilet, soon to be a stalwart of the British countryside and essential country sports spectators’ wear. Meanwhile, mainstream gilet wearing was about to take off with both barking Pony Club DCs and barking-mad ravers just as likely to be seen in puffer ‘bodywarmer’ waistcoats, which were adopted by fashion houses and brands around the world. Gilets were now ubiquitous and one’s choice of style spoke volumes. Hiker? Raver? Pop star? Rider? Since the 1990s, utility and fashion have converged to create a minefield filled with sleeveless badges. In the country-sports community, vests with canvas pockets, bodywarmers filled with down, fleeces, zip-ups of waxed-cotton, and tweed waistcoats for shooting were common.
Gilet, bodywarmer, vest, waistcoat – call it what you will, its modern-day wardrobe domination is undeniable in the countryside. The gilet is a lightweight sleeveless coat that’s usually but not always straight-sided and waist-to-knee-length. It is impossible for any sportsperson to not have at least one item in their closet that fits into this category. There will likely be many more in various styles and ages that are worn with different amounts of dog hair or mud. They were chosen for specific occasions. Quilted for a hunt Meet or county show; canvas-pocketed vest for fishing and gardening; smart fleece for shooting or work; tatty fleece for reading, riding, sleeping… Interestingly, all genders and ages of country dweller could own identical garments, new, worn or handed down, because the universal attraction of the gilet is not just its form but its function.
In the home, where quilted sleeves are frowned upon, a gilet can be found in the kitchens, sitting areas, dinner tables, and in some cases, even the bed. The pockets are great for hoofpicks, phone cords, ammunition, and baler twine. They are an excellent layer throughout the year, but they become even more valuable in winter. The familiar sleeveless shape also provides a feeling of belonging. It is a symbol of rurality, an accepted and unwaveringly collected style. A Savills chartered surveyor reminisced fondly of his collection: “My first one was the wax Barbour I bought in a charity shop in Cirencester when I was a student. My fleece is from C&A, and I tend to wear my black Musto waterproof to work now as the soft-shell Musto has got a bit ragged. It’s had a hard life: skiing, sailing, shooting, raving.” Farlows sells gilets in a number of materials but utility is still at the forefront of customer demand, according to product manager Jack Gregorie. “These are functional garments serving a purpose, especially where the shooting vests are concerned.”
THE ‘S’ WORD
At the crux of most gilet collections will almost certainly be the fleece and one cannot talk about modern-day gilets without mentioning the ‘S’ word. In the early ’90s, in waded the eponymous Schöffel in the form of the Oakham gilet, a leather-trimmed, zip-up, fundamentally unisex fleece waistcoat that interrupted the dominance of the quilted puffer and soon became emblematic of the country sports fraternity. The red trouser was once a staple of the rural landscape. Its success is astounding. Countless imitations have flooded the market. Shooting, beating, pubbing, Sunday lunching with in-laws, hunting mornings, fireside evenings, work-day attire – the fleece gilet has become a ‘one size fits all’ wardrobe essential.
Oakham has a steep price tag. It starts from £159.95, while other gilets in the same style are as much as £200. When a sea of Young Farmers’ Club beer-tent revellers or Game Fair crowds ripple with Schöffels, what appears a social leveller is in fact a significant display of financial and social status. Such is the devotion the brand attracts that a dedicated Instagram account, Schoff Spotted (@schoffelspotted), regularly reports gilet sightings from locations as varied as St Paul’s Cathedral, Vale do Lobo golf course, La Folie Douce Méribel and Cornwall. A tonguein- cheek entry in posh person’s guide The Chin Dictionary defines the gilet (unanimously implied in London circles to be the Schöffel) as the ‘Fulham lifejacket’: ‘The seminal chin accessory: the gilet. Essential for shipbroking. Insurance, PR, inheriting, and lamping. Seen worldwide but mainly Fulham, Cirencester and Membury Services on the M4.’
For rural fashion trends in the countryside, agricultural college students are a good guide. “I used to work for a sporting agent and clay-shooting ground that gave you a Schöffel for every year of service,” recalls Tara Dickinson- Barry, whose gilet addiction began at university. “I loved going to a uni (RAC, 10 years ago) where the gilet was a standard accessory for a night out – it was much more appealing to wear a skin-tight body suit and tiny denim shorts knowing you’re going to throw over a fleecy layer complete with pockets for your phone, fags and dorm key. A sure sign of winter in the Cotswolds is the return of the ‘Doublè Schöffel’ (a gilet over a long-sleeved version, naturally): popped collars, tan piping and layered zips, the more outrageous the colour combinations the better. It is also worth noting that in farming circles it’s normal to have your ‘work Schöffel’, which is probably one you got as a young farmer, is about 15 years old and the zip is barely attached, and a ‘smart Schöffel’ for town and Cheltenham. Oh, and an imitation Schöffel is referred to (in our house, at least) as an ‘Offal’.”
A MORE REFINED GILE
Recent changes have occurred. A shock rumour suggests that one well-known estate agent’s country houses department has banned wearing Schöffels to the office, so it would appear the fleecy phenomenon is shifting. There are many alternatives available on the high street and from designers, which can cost tens of thousands of pounds. In rural areas, a sophisticated gilet has become a style staple. A tweed, round Nehru collared garment with a rounded hem is often seen on men and women on school runs and in pubs and bars. These longer-lined gilets are more refined and fashionable, replacing fleece or knitted styles in favor of a more mature look. They also appear less functional and agricultural. “What we’ve seen over the past year or so,” says Gregorie, “is some of our more traditional country customers wearing more contemporary items, together with some of our urban customers sporting gilets over their city shirts and ties. We’ve been expanding the Farlows collection with new materials too, including suede and linen alongside our usual tweeds, and these are proving popular.” One landed shooting enthusiast noted: “While I own numerous Schöffels, I can’t help but think that their days here are over, relegated to the muddy dog walks and odd jobs around the farm. I’ve gone back to vintage Puffas in an attempt to stand out from the crowd. The king has died. Long live the King. (I also just got a Bella Hoskyns position. Pushing the boat out.)”
Bella Hoskyns’ line of elegant gilets was born from a gap in the market. “At 19 I realised there wasn’t anything out there I wanted to wear, so I designed my own gilet and had it made up,” explains brand owner Arabella Hoskyns-Abrahall. “The gilet I sell today is the original design from then. Classic, elegant, long enough to hide the ‘danger zone’ and rustic enough to never look new.” While priced at the upper end of the market, they are designed to be used, not saved for best. “My strapline has always been stylish yet fundamentally practical. There is no point in a gilet unless it’s practical, in my eyes. Gilets are a bit more than a sweater with pockets. Something you can wear inside a cold house but feel you’re not wearing a coat. A place to put your phone so you don’t have to keep asking where you’ve put it. My customers range from 20 to 80 in age and everyone wears it differently.”
While to the outside world these garments may appear limited in style, the nuances of the countryman or woman’s gilet collection cannot be overstated. These little layers, whether they are brand new, worn out, inherited, made of fleece or tweed, or branded and unbranded, speak volumes about their owner. Their attitudes, hobbies, social groups and families are reflected in their blankets. Yet, no matter which version is donned, and where, isn’t it really the unassuming ‘this old thing’ comfort blanket that truly appeals? Your gilet, or country membership card as it is universally known, is your gilet. Not so humble after all, and bloody comfy too.
WHAT YOUR GILET SAYS ABOUT YOU
THE QUEEN ELIZABETH I
Quilted waistcoat with a paisley-lined lining. Weather permitting, brought out for decades. You’re stylish, comfortable and functional.
THE KATE MIDDLETON
The vest is practical and stylish, but has pockets big enough for a bush-knife when you’re traveling or doing something outdoorsy abroad. You like to appear as practical as the late Queen (but aren’t).
THE PRINCESS ANE
A vest with a solely utilitarian purpose. Fashion is completely absent. There’s a job to jolly well be done, let’s kick on.
THE DAVID BECKHAM
Premier League bodywarmer turned into a tweeded Great Tew gentleman. Unabashedly devoid of the imposter’s syndrome. A chameleon with heroic style.
THE RAU STUDENT
Schöffel/Offal/Puffa-clad 99.9% of the time. Hand in the cow? No sleeves, no problem. There is also plenty of space to store cider cans. Both activities have commemorative marks.
Gilets are your thing? See our selection of the best shooting jackets to wear.