Rules of the countryside

What to wear? Depends if your host is Immaculate or a Smock

Dressing for the countryside when visiting friends used to be a clear-cut exercise. You changed three to five times a day, depending on the rigorousness of your hosts. It didn't matter if you turned up for the weekend with five trunkfuls of clothes and three members of staff; indeed, it was expected. If you were lowly enough to have to borrow house staff to unpack your cases or iron your silks, or if you wore the same thing on more than one occasion, well, you were the subject of much gossip and speculation around the staffroom table that evening.

Visits to the country aren't like this any more, social rules have relaxed, and anyway, most of us are invited to see people who live rather more modestly. This, however, can still bring confusion, because although you don't need so many clothes now when visiting country friends, there are still sartorial quagmires to circumnavigate.

First, it is important to know that there is a marked difference between those who have lived in the country for years and those who have moved fairly recently, from big cities. The former - for ease I shall call them the Smocks - seem entirely comfortable in their surrender to elasticated waists and stonewashed colours. They are far too busy getting on with things to give clothes importance beyond the practical. The women sport very bad haircuts, because any half-decent hair stylist has long fled to the city. When you go to visit Smocks, they take time off to fill you full of hot meat and pastry (home-made and locally sourced), mealtimes all merge into one, and come evening they wash their hands and faces and maybe take an apron off, but that's as far as dressing up goes. (There are exceptions to this but I have chosen to ignore them.)

People who have recently moved to the countryside from big cities - the Immaculates - do things very differently, however, and still secretly aspire to the way things used to be done. They are determined that no one should ever say that living in the country has led to a drop in their standards of dress. Immaculate men wear loafers by Ralph Lauren or Gucci, pressed jeans or chinos with a shirt tucked in, no tie of course, and some sort of "sporting" jacket, as a nod to country living (note: none of this is fashionable). Immaculate women wear Boden; this in itself is not too bad - Boden makes some nice stuff - but they will wear head-to-toe Boden, which no one does outside the Boden catalogue. Or they dress from whatever upmarket high-street shop is nearby. This is because the women never think, when moving, what will happen to their wardrobe if they stray too far from Selfridges.

Immaculates don't have very much fun because everything is ironed and polished and has to remain so, and what's more they like to be seen to be "in touch" by constantly being on the phone to urban friends. They change three times a day - breakfast, lunch, dinner - getting progressively smarter. (Dinner, if I may stray into matters gastronomic for a moment, also betrays their desperation not to be seen as natives: everything has at least 10,000 food miles on it.) Often, in the evening, an Immaculate's accessories can be seen from outer space.

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