At Land Girl we are passionate about our practical and stylish women’s workwear and couldn’t imagine undertaking any of our gardening unless we were suitably attired and dressed for comfort as well as looks.
But the other day, as it was really hot, I was putting on a pair of gardening shorts when I suddenly remembered a picture I had seen in an old gardening book of a woman working at Ragged Lands, where Frances Wolseley had started her College for Lady Gardeners in 1905.
The gardener in question was dressed in formal attire, more suitable for the classroom than the garden, including a boater and striped tie! However, gardeners at Ragged Lands were fortunate in that they were permitted to wear breeches and it made me think about the changes women’s workwear has been through over the past 150 years.
There is a lovely quote from the then head of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sir Joseph Hooker, who at the turn of the 20th century wrote: “Gardening, taken up as a hobby when all the laborious work can be done by a man is delightful, but as a life’s work [for a woman], it is almost an impossible thing.” It seemed that women could direct gardens but weren’t expected to get dirty in the process.
Nina and I decided to do a bit of research, not because we want to replicate gardening attire of the past (not a choice for either practical workwear or sartorial elegance), but because we are simply astounded that apart from the likes of Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West, very little is known about women gardeners.
Kew it appears was quite enlightened, taking on its first women gardeners in 1896. Dubbed “Kewriosities” by the London press, these women started work in bloomers. However, this caused such a stir in Victorian society, that despite their practical nature, they were quickly replaced by knickerbockers, gathered at the knee and teamed with boots. Not dissimilar to our cropped trousers, but without the luxury of Velcro fastenings, washability and a perfect fit.
Of course women really came into their own on the land during the First World War when the Women’s Land Army was formed in 1915. Although this wasn’t the type of gardening Nina and I do, it was for many women the first time they had been allowed to work the land and get dirty doing it!
By 1917 there were over 250,000 women in the WLA wearing the uniform of breeches, knee-length tunic, puttees, jersey, mackintosh, stout boots and a soft felt hat. Pictures from the time show them very constricted for the labour they were expected to do and a far cry from the comfortable clothing we take for granted today.
The WLA made a return during WW2, and their uniform was little different from their WW1 sisters, except that the tunic had been replaced with a shirt, which when tucked into the breeches must have allowed more movement than its predecessor, and the boots and puttees were replaced by shoes and socks.
In the 1940’s dungarees became acceptable workwear for women and many adopted these for tending their own allotments and gardens, wearing them over a long sleeved shirt and tying up their hair in a headscarf. Nina and I think that photographs from this time begin to show gardening clothing as we recognise it today.
By the 1970’s denim had taken hold and jeans became the go-to clothing for women to pull on for everything from gardening, to painting and decorating, to going to the cinema. However, while jeans were definitely hard wearing, they become uncomfortable when bending and stretching, invariably gape at the waist and can take ages to dry, all of which don’t make for great gardening wear.
Which is why at Land Girl we love the fact that our workwear is attractive, versatile and completely fit-for-purpose!
So the next time you’re fastening your Land Girl dungarees, pulling on a cotton tee and looking forward to feeling the sun on your face, spare a thought for all those women gardeners of the past – we bet they’d have given their eye-teeth to don some practical, eye-catching Land Girl clothing.