The sartorial elegance of the labouring classes.


It has to be confessed that I am not a snappy dresser. One of my daughters once commented that she didn’t know anybody who could wear a suit and still give the impression he wasn’t wearing a suit. Admittedly I don’t wear a suit often. I was once working as a self-employed consultant for an organisation and somebody asked me, half-jokingly, if I had a suit.

I replied, “Of course, I get invited to weddings and funerals just like anybody else.”

“How could I get you to wear it?”

“Well you wouldn’t appreciate it if I wore it at your funeral, but if your parents ever get married, I promise you I’ll wear it at their wedding.”

Collar and tie is more common. When ‘church wardening’ a funeral, I might not wear my suit, (dark jacket instead) but I have one white shirt with a collar that I can wear a black tie with. Indeed I have two ties, one for funerals, one not for funerals. (Actually having checked, I discover a wealth of ties, I have three of them and two of them are black). There again, now I’m a churchwarden I might wear my tie six times a year. Given that previously I could get away with that many times in a decade, I’m a bit worried my ties might start to show wear and tear.

But looking back at the previous two generations of our family, when working the men often just wore the clothes that had previously been ‘best.’ I don’t think the idea of buying clothes just to work in occurred to them. I can remember my Grandfather working in a three piece suit, with jacket, trousers and waistcoat. Admittedly the lining of the waistcoat had pretty much come away, and the jacket was patched. Similarly working with livestock had stained the suit trousers a shade the original tailor had never had in mind.

An uncle of mine always worked in a sports jacket. To be fair one sleeve was a bit charred where it caught fire. He was using an angle grinder to cut a piece of metal, and hadn’t noticed the sparks were falling on his sleeve. It was the smell of burning that attracted his attention to the issue. But it matched the other sleeve which he’d torn on barbed wire when fencing.

My father, after a lifetime in farm service, never acquired much in the way of a wardrobe. After all, if you’re male and keep active, the suit you were married in should do you for another thirty or forty years, especially when you so rarely wear it. So he tended to go in for bib and brace overalls, worn with a kitel. Now I’m not sure where the term kitel came from. In Russia it’s the name of a loose fitting and practical jacket with three or four pockets. It was popular within the Russian army and survived the revolution and the Second World War. Apparently in Yiddish, a kittel was what married men wore in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. It could be used as a shroud. I’ve been told by Danes that they use the word for a polyester cotton warehouse coat/lab coat.  How it ended up as being used in South Cumbria to describe a short jacket, looking like a short warehouse coat, but with three pockets, I genuinely don’t know.

The other vital item of clothing is the hat. Preferably a flat cap. If you see old photos of farmworkers from before the war, all would be wearing caps and some of the caps were remarkably large! I confess that for many years I wore baseball caps. I suspect that there was a fashion for companies supplying agriculture to give them away. It may be because so many of these companies have connections with the USA. But I ran out of free baseball caps and splashed out a tenner on a flat cap. To be fair, they are superior. They stay on your head better, are almost as good at keeping the sun or rain out of your eyes (the latter is more important here in Cumbria) and are warmer. Also, if you need to grip a piece of hot iron, or pull the entangled briars out of a sheep’s fleece, the flat cap does the job better.

But fashion moves on. I never liked bib and brace overalls. I always felt constricted, with something pulling at my shoulders. So I wore jeans. The problem with jeans is that once I start using them for working, I destroyed a pair a year. I’d get them after hay-time, and by next hay-time they had worn so thin above the knees that they started coming apart. Indeed I was fashionably wearing torn jeans long before they were fashionable.

But with jackets, the problem with the kitel is that it isn’t waterproof. So over the years I’ve tried all sorts of things. Then one of the van salesmen sold me a high-vis jacket for £5. I initially used it for when I was out walking but it eventually got used for work. Looking at it hung on a door handle, it strikes me that this might be its last winter.


And an announcement, I’ve just published the fourth of my collection of dog, quad, sheep and cattle tales. May I present, for your delectation and delight, ‘Lambing, almost live.’

The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing.
But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

As a reviewer commented, “This book charts a year in the life of a Cumbrian sheep farmer. It’s sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of other years. Some parts (especially when featuring Sal, the Border Collie) were so funny as to cause me to have to read them out loud to my husband. It’s very interesting to read these things from the pen of the man who is actually out there doing it – usually in the rain! A very good read.”

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11 thoughts on “The sartorial elegance of the labouring classes.

  1. Jane Sturgeon January 13, 2020 at 11:26 am Reply

    You simply can’t work in a suit, not with what you do! Love the jacket pic. Jim, Lambing, almost live, is on my reading list. I so look forward to it. Hugs and Happy New Year to you all up there and I suspect in the next twenty-four hours we’ll need to batten down the hatches! 🙂

    • jwebster2 January 13, 2020 at 12:40 pm Reply

      Round here they’ve rolled back a bit on the forecast windspeed, we were going to get 45-50 but now we’re back down under thirty
      Hope you enjoy lambing almost live 🙂

      • Jane Sturgeon January 13, 2020 at 12:49 pm

        I will review it for you, Jim. Take care. x

      • jwebster2 January 13, 2020 at 12:53 pm

        thanks, that would be good 🙂

  2. rugby843 January 13, 2020 at 8:16 pm Reply

    Liked this. In fact I was just looking at a fifties photo and wondered why men stopped wearing the fedora type hats. I’m not a fan of baseball hats even though they are very popular here. I also don’t mind cowboy type hats and we have lots if them here in Wyoming. The flat cap is another I like, but not as popular here as up it is in Britain.

    Sent from my iPad


    • jwebster2 January 13, 2020 at 9:12 pm Reply

      It’s not desperately popular in Britain, not like it was. I suspect it’s still seen as a northern thing and is rather looked down upon by the sophisticated 🙂

      • rugby843 January 14, 2020 at 3:16 am

        That’s a shame

      • jwebster2 January 14, 2020 at 6:10 am

        too early in the morning, I’ve replied to Widdershins for you and now replying to you for Widdershins 😦
        My excuse is I have a train to catch 🙂

  3. Widdershins January 14, 2020 at 1:48 am Reply

    That coat has certainly earned an honourable retirement. 🙂

    • jwebster2 January 14, 2020 at 6:09 am Reply

      I think so, but at the last general election, a lot of northern seats switched from Labour to Conservative, which means the new government has to give far more thought to the North than has been the case for perhaps a century
      So we may see changes 🙂

  4. A Tux and a Beer Truck | Broadway Matron January 18, 2020 at 8:52 pm Reply

    […] other day I read a post called The Sartorial Elegance of the Labouring Classes. And it quickly brought to mind my father. While my father was not of the labouring class mentioned […]

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