The French swear that the secret to understanding the mysteries of wine lies in understanding its terroir. As an Englishman you can’t even pronounce the word without feeling pretentious; and terroir is just as tricky to get your head round as it is to get your tongue round. It’s a concept that’s alien to the English mindset – we haven’t really got a word you can translate it into – yet it’s a cornerstone of the French understanding of how wine works, and why good wine is good.
It boils down to the belief that a glass of wine is ultimately the expression and distillation of the entire sweep of factors that give birth to it, from the type of grape to the geology, soil and climate that feed it, through to the historical and cultural climate affecting the human hands that navigate that process. In this way, a glass of Burgundy is perceived to have a fractal quality, in the sense that it is an image of the whole “world” that has produced it, and the finer the wine, the richer the picture. The clue’s always in the name with French wines – Champagne, Burgundy or Bordeaux are all places too, and in a sense, so are the wines. It’s a profound, even mystical idea, something close to “As Above, So Below,” with roots in the mindset of the medieval monks who first tended the vines – a very ancient idea that’s come round again, with the prevalence of current holistic, biodynamic ideas, and our recent obsessions with the provenance of our food and drink.
A belief in terroir is a belief that everything is part of an interconnected whole, that everything is bound by profound and subtle connections and correspondences that on the surface may seem to be arbitrary coincidence. It seems clear to me that clothes, a form of human culture and creativity as fundamental as cultivating the land with vines or cattle, have their roots in terroir as profoundly as food or wine does.
The fundamentals of the British wardrobe grew out of the landscape, out of the fishing village, the farm and the hunt. Wellies, waxed jackets and tweeds are inextricably tied to the muted, pearly skies, mossy river banks and damp slate roofs that are the textures of our lives on this island. The greens and browns and russets of a Gainsborough or a Constable are the same greens and browns and russets of Harris Tweed, Barbour Beadales or Oxford brogues.
We’d forgotten our native style a little over recent decades, fallen out of love with our climate and the clothes it gave us. The age of Easyjet convinced us that the sun is god, and we fell under the spell of a fake-tanned Mediterranean fantasy that is inappropriate and alien to our climate and our natural sensibilities. Thankfully, all that seems to be on the wane, we’re beginning to leave the bare immacked chests glaring out of low cut v-neck tee-shirts to the Latin blokes, and only the crassest Big Brother contestant wears ripped jeans and pointy leather estate agent shoes these days. Give me the subtlety and the modesty of a brushed indigo cotton shirt and woollen pullover, which suit a wander through the subtlety and poetry of an autumnal English riverscape best.
As a walker, a wanderer who invests great meaning in this daily communion with the world, I’m all for those grey skies that bring out the greens by the riverbank. I can say with certainty that a great glaring sun bearing down on you is the enemy of an ambling walk, turning it into more of a chore than a pleasure: all that squinting the eyes, sweating and ducking into the shade – give me gentle, grey jumper weather any day; the ideal weather for wandering and appreciating the world is the weather in between, that quiet, moderate, subtle weather that is the metaphor and midwife of the British sensibility.
And that sensibility has been as important as our climate in shaping the clothes we wear – as well as emerging from the landscape, the British wardrobe has been slowly shaped and honed by the history of the culture that crafted it, just as a river smoothes a pebble in its flow. We’ve inherited and re-worked the wardrobe of the first industrialised and truly urbanised culture. The cites of our grandfathers and their grandfathers were the sites our suits and ties and macs emerged from, to meet the demands of those new urban realities. But this civilisation of big brick and stone cities was a place with a lingering romantic attachment to its green and pleasant folk memories. The sports jacket and flat cap became ubiquitous among the urban millions partly because they expressed aspirations of respectability, having filtered down from the dress codes of their betters, which codified the sporting and hunting and country pursuits those landed gentry rulers enjoyed. The sports jacket and flat cap inferred on its huddling, terraced masses a sense of the dignity and nobility that came with the town and country lifestyle that these clothes were originally invented for. Our clothes are as much about imagination and yearning as they are about practical realities. Clothes provide psychic as well as physical shelter, and are an imaginative counterbalance for the all the things that are missing in our lives.
So are the beards, bicycles and Barbours ubiquitous in the gentrified inner cites today similarly the yearnings of a rootless digital culture lost in Twitter space? We yearn for an authenticity behind the 3G hall of mirrors, floating freely through the disjointed contemporary conundrum. Is this why, as we traipse the clothes shops of a shopping mall that could be anywhere, night or day, summer or snow, or the chilly aisles of another generic M&S Simply Food on the commute home, as disconnected from the source and reality of our clothing and our food as any British people have been since we urbanised and industrialised two hundred years ago, we’ve developed such strong yearnings for the organic, the authentic, the heritage, the locally specific? Maybe these yearnings offer our souls some anchor that will ground us as we float freely through modern life, and our Yorkshire rhubarb or Northamptonshire brogues are the looking glass fantasies and nostalgic yearnings that fill the holes in our current culture.
The British wardrobe is as much an expression of this psychic landscape, the hopes and needs of the sensibility that inhabits this land, that shapes and is shaped by it, as it is an expression of our climate or geology or botany. The French have always known that the haunting and elusive poetry of place that results from the marriage of all these things is somehow distilled into a good bottle of Burgundy, which unfolds and unravels from a glass onto the palate and the mind with all the resonance and suggestiveness of Proust’s madeleine. Just so with the textures and colours and cut of a Savile Row suit, a hunting jacket of Harris Tweed, or a mac in the rain that falls and glistens against the urbane stone of Edinburgh’s elegant New Town.