Dr F. writes from Sussex to ask how people (I take it that she has the gentry in mind), dressed when they went out to enjoy a landscape. One thinks immediately of the thin shoes that ladies wore at Chatsworth in the 17th century, when grass paths were reserved for them – the gravel was for ‘mens harder feet’, as Charles Cotton put it. But contrast with that the altogether more lusty behaviour of Mrs Howard a-hunting in Richmond Park In 1730 ‘with great noise and violence, and have every day a very tolerable chance to have a neck broke’ – or indeed of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet at Netherfield, ‘crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles, springing over puddles’ that had given her ‘a face glowing with the warmth of exercise’. Or indeed Lady Sarah Lennox, reported by the Duchess of Leinster to be ‘in a fancied habit, making hay’, when George III rode out specially to see her on the 18th June 1761.
A woman might perhaps be delicate or not, as she chose, but should, if young and if possible, be fetching.
For men, the rules were reversed. It was essential to dress down. There was no alternative. Henry Pye, poet laureate, went out to the country in ‘some old coat’ worn into ‘slovenry’. John Byng had to have ‘buttons and strings’ sewn to ‘my old articles, who look deplorably, from such eternal pressure between horse and ass,’, and de la Rochefoucauld confirmed the etiquette: ‘In the morning you come down in riding-boots and a shabby coat… but in the evening… you must be well-washed and well-groomed’.
Think then of Mr and Mrs Andrewes in Gainsborough’s portrait. What did he think he was doing? – Who was he trying to impress? – out in the middle of a ploughed field, with a gun, in THOSE CLOTHES!
As for what Lady Lennox wore, if Edward Haytley’s painting of the Montagu family at Sandleford Priory is anything to go by, it wasn’t exactly a smock.