You may (or may not) remember that, during 2009, I set myself a project to walk every day, and to think about walking. I initially attempted to photograph and calculate the distance of my daily walks, but this part of the project quickly fell by the wayside: it is difficult to take any sort of decent photo in the dark or in the rain, and I rapidly became bored with the pedometer — in fact, I found that the things that interested me least about my walking were how fast I was going, or how far I’d been. Other aspects of the project proved very thought provoking, however, and I shall try to group some of these thoughts together here over the next few days.
One of the issues that has preoccupied me consistently over the course of the project has been appropriate walking garb. In terms of my daily commute, I soon realised that walking everywhere meant abandoning heeled shoes, and selecting outfits that were smart enough to teach in, but comfortable enough to work up a bit of steam in, when rushing to the station and back. But weekends meant a different kind of walking — in the mountains. Over the past twelve months, I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with different garments and different layers of garments, in order to find the most flexible, light, versatile, and comfortable combination to get about in while walking up hill and down dale. It will come as no surprise to you that I favour wool for just about everything but the necessary waterproof shell. I stick this shell (comprising gloves, light jacket, and — at the very last resort — pants) in my backpack, but when the weather is dry, I enjoy comfortable wool-clad walking in all weathers.
You will note that my current walking shorts are cotton, but I do have a pattern to make myself some tweed shorts, and, when I’ve done so, I shall have an entirely woollen walking outfit. Now, you may attribute this to my inordinate love of all things sheepy, but my experience has told me that the warmth, wicking and layering properties of wool really are superior to those of any synthetic fabric. In wool, one does not stink, even after several days in the hills, and nor does one’s clothing produce enough electricity to light a fire when one simply moves about (Tom’s synthetic Ron Hill and Helly combo generates visible bright green sparks). My favourite walkers, like the legendary Alfred Wainwright, often also favoured wool. Wainwright’s son recalled that: “Dad always walked in his shoes and his suits . . . he had four suits, all tweed. His best one was for council meetings. His second best was for work. Third best for walking. Fourth best for gardening.”* Now, Wainwright had a tweedy sort of a mindset, and he was also a bloke. If, toward the end of his walking career, he had wanted to change his woolly walking uniform, he might have selected from the wide range of innovative clothing that was then beginning to be made accessible by the British pioneers of contemporary outdoor wear: men like Mike Parsons of Karrimor , Pete Hutchinson, or those two Newcastle guys who started Berghaus. Things are much more complicated for women, who, in both historical and contemporary terms, have not been served well by the outdoor industry. I have talked about this before, but I feel I must reiterate how consistently frustrated I am by the poor cut and design of women’s commercially manufactured outdoor clothing. It also bothers me that I cannot buy quality merino base layers without them being marked with some sign or other of what is assumed to be the feminine. Are their masculine equivalents decorated with footballs, tractors or other inanely gendered visual cues? No? Then why are all of icebreaker’s women’s merino tops daubed with fookin flowers? Why don’t these (otherwise admirable) manufacturers realise that it is perfectly possible to be feminine out of doors without being pink or ornamental? Size is also an issue. Because I’ve found that manufactured outdoor wear for women is always cut too large, and too poorly, I have resorted in the past to buying boys clothes.** In this respect, my choice of manufactured outdoor clothing is as limited as that of a Victorian woman climber, who would buy boys knickerbockers, to be worn in secret under her long skirts.
(wool vest, wool knickers, wool base layer, wool sweater, wool tights, wool socks, wool hat, wool cowl (thanks, Mel), wool gloves, goretex gloves, Rab pertex and down gillet, cotton shorts, wool skirt, leather boots. Crummock Water, Jan 1st, 2010)
Now, on the flat, or in a tent, it strikes me that a heavy skirt is not necessarily a bad thing. The thick woollen one I am wearing above, for example, is as windproof and cosy as a blanket. It is great for walking around Edinburgh in the current arctic windchill, and is also fantastic when one is emerging from one’s tent in sub-zero temperatures, like those we enjoyed on New Year’s eve. In such circumstances, a wool skirt can protect the legs with a warmth that cannot be beaten. But would I want to wear it out in the hills, or even carry it in my pack up a mountain? No I certainly would not.
Certainly, it is impossible to imagine ascending any sort of hill in the heavy hitched skirts Burberry recommended as a “practical” women’s climbing wear in 1907, let alone the garb worn by the women depicted in Charles Boutibonne’s painting above. While the seated woman is reasonably comfortably dressed in a wool skirt that seems to be hitched, pinned, and divided, the figure standing to her right is clad in a light walking dress of impractical cream hue. This woman is also clearly wearing corsets, as well as a gauze-veiled hat that would be both useless and indeed dangerous in such rocky terrain. Laced in her stays, she gazes with what is perhaps a certain degree of envy at the nimble child (an acceptably infantilised male guide for this all-female party) in his easy-to-wear shirt and breeches. And its a good job the group seem to have abandoned their parasol, because it would be completely useless in that wind. Now, there are things I like about this painting: its drama, its movement, and the way it depicts nineteenth-century women in a wild landscape, looking robust and physically capable (albeit inappropriately dressed). But it is clear that this painting — just like the photographs that depict women climbers during this era — is a sort of staged fantasy. It is all too easy to read nineteenth-century photographs of women’s outdoor activity as direct representations of reality, when, in fact, these images are governed by conventions of genre, and rules of respectability, just like Boutibonne’s painting. That early photographs of skirted women climbers are carefully staged for the public eye is a point is repeatedly made by Mike Parsons and Mary B Rose, whose Invisible on Everest is one of the best-researched and most interesting of the many books I’ve recently read on the subject of women’s walking and climbing (those who are interested in further reading will find a short list at the end of this post). Rose and Parsons describe two worlds for the nineteenth-century woman climber: the public world of the valley, the chalet, staged photographs, and long skirts, and the invisible, private, and immensely enabling world that women experienced in the mountains: a world of enjoyable physical exertion, and clothing that was both comfortable and appropriate for the conditions. Rose and Parsons describe a “complex charade where [women] only appeared to follow dress codes whilst privately flouting them — along with many other conventions — as soon as they were out of the valley.”
Freda Du Faur — the first woman to climb New Zealand’s Mount Cook — regarded it as imperative to look feminine as well as physically capable, and was never photographed without a skirt covering her knickerbockers and puttees, as she is seen here. The redoubtable Lizzie Le Blond, meanwhile — who routinely climbed in knickerbockers and stockings — also felt it necessary to don her skirts whenever she was in public view. According to an anecdote relayed by Rebecca Brown, after a strenuous day’s climbing in 1908, Le Blond returned to discover that her skirts (which she had carefully secreted under a cairn) had blown away. She crept back to the village in her knickerbockers, and sent her guide to her hotel to fetch another skirt while she hid herself from view. The guide apparently returned with an evening gown, in which outlandish garb she made her way back to civilisation.*** While many of these otherwise intrepid walking women clearly felt the need to conform to conservative ideals of female respectability where their appearance was concerned, Constance Barnicoat, whose climbing achievements included an ascent of Switzerland’s Grosser Schreckhorn in the winter of 1911, was unusual in her open advocation of climbing in boy’s clothes: “skirts, even the shortest, are almost impracticable. I promptly sent for proper boys boots . . . and generally rigged myself out as much like a boy as possible with sweater, knickers, and puttees to my knees. . . whatever arguments may be urged against a boy’s dress for a woman anywhere within range of civilisation, those arguments do not hold good in such wilds as we went through.”**** Despite what climbing women might have said or did in public, then, in the paradoxically hidden world of the great outdoors they were whipping off their heavy skirts and restricting stays, and shimmmying up mountains in shorts and stockings.
For low-level walks, however, I still think a good skirt can be a good thing. Dorothy Wordsworth’s skirts clearly received a lot of outdoor wear (from the amount of walking and mending her journals describe), and I often picture her moving about the landscape in her skirts and stockings, observing Cumbria’s characteristic tricks of the light, and gathering mosses and lichens, whenever I’m in the Lake District. I also love this early twentieth-century Danish depiction of a be-skirted walking woman, which I think suggests a genuine sense of feminine ease and strength in the outdoors. As for myself, I have decided to supplement the deficiencies of contemporary women’s outdoor wear by producing an entirely home-made walking outfit. As well as the forthcoming tweed shorts, I am now in the process of knitting myself a serviceable, warm and hard-wearing base layer (out of some Jamieson and Smith Shetland lace weight). And after that, I intend to take on the interesting task of producing my own pair of knitted longies from scratch (rather than the two pairs of wool tights I’m wearing here)
*Hunter Davies, Wainwright: the Biography (1995), 123
**The women’s outdoor garments designed by Sheffield-based Rab Carrington are a happy exception to this rule.
***Rebecca Brown, Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering (2002), 50
****Barnicoat, “Where no Woman Ever Went Before” Wide World Magazine (March 1904), 566.
Arlene Blum, Annapurna: A Woman’s Place (1998 ed)
Jill Marie Maclachlan, Peak Performances: Cultural and Autobiographical Constructions of the Victorian Female Mountaineer PhD Thesis, (UBC, 2004)
David Mazel, ed, Mountaineering Women: Stories of Early Climbers (1994)
Mike Parsons and Mary B Rose, Invisible on Everest: Innovation and the Gear Makers (2003) (Thankyou, John, for the recommendation of this title).
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2006 ed)
Recommendations of books any of you have enjoyed about women’s walking, climbing or general outdoor activities would be very welcome indeed.