May 9, 2014 6:31 pm

Clash of the tartans

‘Coco Chanel discovered Cumbrian tweeds and Scottish cashmere during her 1920s affair with the Duke of Westminster’

There was a time, not so very long ago, when the question of what to wear in the country would have been straightforward. Certainly, women of my grandmother’s generation, when at a country house party, tended to don sensible tweeds and stout shoes during the day, even if evenings were a dressier affair.

Nowadays, the sartorial codes are more complicated, as city slickers and celebrities colonise the Cotswolds, and the social highlight of the summer season is as likely to be backstage at Glastonbury as at the Game Fair at Blenheim Palace. Consider Kate Moss, gadding about the Gloucestershire town of Lechlade in an Isabel Marant fur jacket during her country weekends; or teaming her muddy Hunter wellies with a Topshop miniskirt, thereby defining a peculiarly perverse rule of festival fashion (bare legs good, however heinous the weather).

All of which have been talking points among my colleagues at Harper’s Bazaar in the run-up to our launching the first British edition of Town & Country (an American title that has chronicled high society, high culture and high fashion since 1846). As it happens, even the most rigorously chic members of the editorial team turned out to be just as enthusiastic about traditional country classics as they are about new season Dior, happily extolling Johnstons of Elgin cashmere, Yorkshire worsted and Harris Tweeds. This is not because they were brought up on grouse moors; rather that they appreciate authenticity and expert craftsmanship. (The same merits, in fact, that prompted fashion house Chanel to invest in Barrie Knitwear, a Scottish textile company, 18 months ago.)

Optimists – and sometimes I am one – might interpret this as being part of a contemporary movement against fast fashion, in an era where the rapid consumption of apparently cheap, throwaway clothes has come to be associated with the higher cost of exploitation. (“Slow Fashion”, in contrast, places an emphasis on local, sustainable production, making high-quality goods that will last a lifetime.) But there are also precedents for a mutually beneficial relationship between luxury fashion and traditional British textiles; including Coco Chanel’s longstanding commitment to Scottish cashmere and Cumbrian tweeds, which she discovered during her love affair with the Duke of Westminster in the 1920s, by way of his country pursuits wardrobe, which she adopted and adapted as her own.

Several years before I became editor of Harper’s Bazaar, during the course of researching a biography of Chanel, I was immersed in the details of the couturier’s lengthy expeditions to the Highlands, where she went salmon fishing with the Duke and his friend Winston Churchill. But what I didn’t realise until some time afterwards was that another, far less famous, but nonetheless intriguing, figure in the world of international fashion had also developed her own version of countryside style.

Frances Farquharson, a well-born American and former fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, had married a Scottish laird possessed of not one but two castles: Invercauld and Braemar, both situated on the neighbouring estate to Balmoral. Soon after their marriage in 1949, Farquharson introduced shocking pink to the hitherto conservative castle interiors; painting several rooms in the flamboyant colour more often associated with her friend, the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who subsequently made a number of expeditions to Invercauld. Farquharson, however, was as inspired by Scottish textiles as she was by Parisian couture. She encouraged Schiaparelli to incorporate tweed into her surrealist fashion collections and commissioned local tartans and mohair for her own, idiosyncratic outfits.

These were the stories I heard when I began coming to Aberdeenshire, having myself fallen in love with a Scottish laird five years ago. Yes, I subsequently married him and, yes, I have also started wearing local tweeds (some of them unearthed from the recesses of my husband’s wardrobe). Unlike Chanel, I haven’t learnt to fish, nor have I taken to wearing elaborate tartan bonnets, in the manner of Frances Farquharson, and our house remains untouched by Schiaparelli pink. But I hope that I have absorbed enough of their intrepid spirit to enjoy this new adventure, balancing the pleasures of a country life in Scotland with that of a working life in town.

Oh, and finally, if you do get a chance to look at the first issue of Town & Country, you might notice a small period photograph of a striking-looking woman in tartan plaid. Our picture editor found it in an archive; our designer then included it in a fashion spread on what to wear to the Highland games. I liked the look of it, though none of us knew the identity of the woman, as there had been no caption on the original picture. But when my husband looked at the magazine, he immediately identified her. “Glad to see you’ve included Francie Farquharson,” he said, approvingly. And with any luck, she might have been pleased too.

Justine Picardie is editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country

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