The Schöffel: What fashion says about the urban/rural divide.
It’s agricultural show season and the Schöffels are on parade. Not even scorching hot sun deters the Schöffel devotee from donning their fleecy gilet – they just lose the shirt for Schöffel-on-skin breeziness. It has become the uniform of the working countryside and, like all uniforms, it is both loved and loathed. I’ve heard the Schöffel celebrated as a “rite of passage” and ridiculed as a “Scrotum Jacket” (scroll down for my interview with a group of farmers about farming fashion – I guarantee five minutes of audio gold!)
The Schöffel – that titan of rural fashion – first entered my consciousness when I was writing Divide, which explores the relationship between urban and rural communities. I wrote a full chapter on ‘Culture’ which, among other things, pondered our contrasting dresscodes, i.e. streetwear and country clothing. The chapter was cut from the final book because I went way over the word limit, but I’ve continued to mull over what ‘farmwear’ says about our culture, and people.
For International Women’s Day I blogged about my tweed coat and discussed the patriarchal influences on rural clothing with Lincolnshire flower grower Matt Naylor, who pointed the finger squarely at farmers in their “sombre coats”. It’s true many of them seem to model their collective look on a muddy field in winter, all muted tones of green and brown. Practical fashion. You could quite easily blend into a hedgerow after shopping in the workwear section at Wynnstay Farmers. Personally, I think it’s a subconscious proclamation to the world that they belong outside, exposed to the elements: “Don’t expect me to sit in an office! Look at what I’m wearing!” Being appropriately dressed for any grubby manual task that might present itself, at any given time, is an unspoken declaration of toughness and personal resilience.
Urban streetwear proclaims its own cultural messages. Hoodies, those massive white trainers, designer labels, whatever, there’s a city look that says: “I can look after myself on the streets. I belong here.” These clothes may serve no practical use whatsoever, but that’s ok because the most important thing is looking relaxed, casual, confident; like you know your way around. Ultimately sick trainers are no different to a Barbour jacket – they indicate membership of a tribe. They convey a certain status.
As a confused urban/rural hybrid, my own personal wardrobe is a weird mash-up of country clothing and vaguely hippyish streetwear. I buy most of my clothes from charity shops which, in Bristol at least, determines a slightly alternative look. I found my favourite jumper on a wall near my house – Bristolians routinely leave unwanted clothing on the street and it’s perfectly acceptable to pick it up and take it home. I also own an equestrian gilet, which sits next to my trusty Adidas hoodie. An All Saints biker jacket hangs alongside my Joules fieldcoat. New Balance trainers are plonked next to Dublin River Boots (a cheaper version of Dubarry). My resulting wardrobe looks like Kae Tempest swapped clothes with Kate Middleton.
“You wear some weird outfits,” Alex has said on more than one occasion.
I’m not the only one.
“My brother comes up on the train from London and his fashion is so bizarre,” says my friend Anna, a beef and sheep farmer in Mid Wales. “Last time he was wearing white Reebok trainers, stonewashed jeans, an Adidas jumper and a Barbour waxed coat. I mean, what is going on with that?”
I make a mental note. Sounds cool.
Unlike her brother, Anna rejected city life and came home to farm with her parents on the hills of Mid Wales. If driving westwards, this rolling country is the warm-up to Snowdonia, the climbing swell before you hit the big waves of North Wales.
Last summer, Anna fell in love with a city boy from Cardiff, who she met through the dating app Hinge. Guy strayed into her 50+ mile dating radius while on a hiking trip to the Brecon Beacons – it was set at the maximum range to increase her chances of meeting at least one eligible bloke who she didn’t already know. After a whirlwind romance, he discovered not only a love for Anna but also sheep farming. Within months, he’d ditched his city job and moved to the farm permanently. They’ve never been happier but, interestingly, Guy’s urban ‘outsider’ perspectives picked up on things Anna had never consciously considered before, including how she dressed. And chatting to Anna last summer while researching the book is how I encountered the mighty Schöffel for the first time:
“We were getting ready to meet some friends and I was wearing this and a Schöffel waistcoat,” she said, pointing at her navy and white striped Joules jersey top. “I came out of the bedroom and Guy said, ‘Ooh, don’t you look country?'”
“A Schöffel. It’s kind of a rite of passage as a young farmer or country person.”
I Googled it. Ah yes, the fleecy gilet with the brown leathery trim – I’d seen plenty of those, but never given them a second thought.
Now they’re on my radar, and since that conversation with Anna, I see Schöffels everywhere. And I’ve become weirdly fascinated with them. Why do rural folk love them so much? How have they become such a uniform? Do the different colours really mean different stuff? I’ve heard all sorts of theories – that navy Schöffel wearers are posher than green Schöffel wearers, that land agents wear maroon Schöffels, and auctioneers wear some other colour. Some say there’s a secret code – that farm machinery dealers and fertiliser salesmen won’t talk to you unless you’re Schöffed up.
Since posting this blog I’ve been amazed (and highly entertained) by the strength of feeling out there about this rather unassuming garment. Some of the comments on my Twitter feed include: “Chelsea lifejackets”; “Schöffel wankers”; “a status symbol saying I am wealthy enough to spaff money on this and also saying I am desperate to fit in”; and easily the most uncompromising: “I think they are worn by unpatriotic posh twats. Mainly farmers that moan about the public buying cheap imported food and then go and buy expensive imported gilets.”
Wow! It left me feeling quite sorry for the poor (well, not exactly poor) Schöffel wearer.
It was during a Just Farmers workshop in Staffordshire that I enjoyed my best Schöffel chat yet. I was doing interview role play with the farmers, showing them how radio packages are put together. I asked each of them to bring an interesting item we could talk about ‘on air’. We’ve seen all sorts over the years – from bull testicle measurers to manual seed drills – but never before had a farmer brought along their own clothing range. Cambridgeshire beef farmer and contractor Sarah Haywood designs ‘Country and Western themed workwear’ – denim dungaree dresses, chunky lumberjack shirts, hoodies and beanies. Think bearded hipster cowboy with a top knot. It is definitely not ‘farmery’.
Intrigued, I asked for Sarah’s thoughts on the Schöffel. She calls them ‘Scrotum Jackets’. And so ensued the most wonderful conversation with the most wonderful group of farmers. I kept the recording – I highly recommend a listen. Here’s Sarah Haywood, Worcestershire strawberry grower Bal Padda, Buckinghamshire beef farmer Will Ives and Cheshire dairy farmer Katy Lowe sharing their Schöffely thoughts:
You could add the Culture chapter to your Audio book as a Bonus feature!
Or perhaps best saved for another book…