More than a pretty costume

by Donna Smiley

Everyone has seen paintings and photos of the classic foxhunt, with riders in scarlet coats following hounds across a bucolic countryside. What you may not realize is that those eye-catching costumes are more than just decoration. To those who understand the language, there is meaning to be found in almost every detail. Let’s start at the top. The black riding cap provides some protection for the head should a rider have an “unscheduled dismount”. On the back at the bottom rim is a black grosgrain ribbon tied in a small bow. The tails of the bow left down and hanging indicates the rider is a professional (meaning paid) huntsman or whipperin. Everyone else has the bow ends glued in an upright position. An entire chapter could be written on the intricacies of the hunt coat alone, but I will skip over a lot and speak in broad generalizations.

The hunt staff and Masters wear scarlet coats; packs other than foxhounds normally wear other colors, but I won’t get into that here. Hunt members and visitors wear a black coat with black buttons. Hunt members may earn the right to wear brass buttons engraved with the hunt’s logo, and may eventually earn the privilege of “colors”. Awarding colors means that the member is entitled to wear the scarlet coat with brass buttons and the collar covered in the specific color scheme that particular hunt uses, ie navy collar with grey piping. A member wearing the colors indicates that the person is very knowledgeable and experienced, one that the Master and staff can count on to be level-headed and helpful, a person that visitors and new members can turn to for assistance when out hunting. The scarlet coats make them stand out as mobile “help desks” in the field, basically. Tradition has it that female members awarded colors do not wear the scarlet coat, but instead affix the colored collar to their black coat to indicate their status. However, some US hunts have modernized things, and allow women to wear scarlet.

The number of brass buttons provides another code to decipher. Four buttons indicates the huntsman and staff. Five buttons are reserved for Masters who hunt their own hounds. All others wear three buttons The white stock tie worn under the coat is about 6 feet long, tied in a very intricate manner and affixed with a brass pin that looks similar to a large diaper pin. The tie can be used in emergencies as a bandage for horse or rider, or a sling for an injured arm. The pin has meaning also. Pinned vertically it indicates professional hunt staff; all others pin theirs horizontally. The tall black leather boots reach to just below the knee. Brown tops that cover the first 4 inches of the boots are worn by Masters and hunt staff. All others wear unadorned black boots. Traditionally, women Masters and staff wear black patent leather tops rather than the brown, but as with the colors, this isn’t always the case anymore. So the next time you see a painting or photo of a hunt, check out the details to see if you can decipher what role each person plays in the hunt, just by interpreting their fancy outfit!

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