What the well-dressed gardener should wear.
Fashion is a concern of mine, and I hope through this column to hear your suggestions as to appropriate dress in the garden. I’m thinking of the city garden, where people are likely to be subjected to a view of the gardener whether they like it or not. If your garden is not enclosed by a tall fence and you like to garden in daylight hours, you are as much an accouterment as the birdbath and should really try to enhance the overall esthetic effect or at least not detract from it.
Is it overalls and a t-shirt? Or shorts, and if so what length? Must one wear rubber boots to be taken seriously? Gloves? A straw hat tipped seductively at an angle and tied under the chin?
I don’t pretend to have the answers. This past Christmas my eight-year-old daughter sent a note to Santa asking for a new baseball glove, some Legos, and “for Mom to wear decent clothes.” She did not write: “Bring Mom some decent clothes.” Mom has plenty of decent clothes. She just doesn’t wear them. Instead, she shows up at school in purple sweatpants with dirt blotches on the knees and a Donald Duck t-shirt.
I am frequently told that one’s appearance “sends a message,” and knowing this does sometimes (usually after catching my reflection in a plate-glass window) send a cold shiver up my spine. I’m told that my habit of gardening in purple sweatpants or a voluminous ankle-length cotton flannel skirt and track shoes proclaims my callous disregard for others’ feelings and jeopardizes my daughters’ social position, particularly that of my eleven-year-old who is desperately chic. Fortunately, she is currently affecting the “grunge” look, which requires making a pained expression at the mention of Gap Kids and rifling the bins at Ragstock and the Army Surplus for baggy men’s trousers and sweatshirts that hang below the knee. When she tells me my closes deprive her of fun mother-daughter activities like going out in public, I tell her that men’s trousers weren’t what I had in mind for my daughter either.
The most famous fashion statement ever made in a garden was Gertrude Jekyll’s apron (fitted with tool pockets) and army boots. Another image I hold dear is that of Katherine White as described by her husband, E.B. White: “I used to marvel at how unhesitatingly she would kneel down in the dirt and begin grubbing about, garbed in a spotless cotton dress or a handsome tweed skirt and jacket. She refused to dress down for her garden.” When planting spring bulbs, an autumn chore that invariably fell on a dismal day, “Katherine would get into a shabby old Brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a little round wool har, [and] pull on a pair of overshoes.”
So what is the correct look this year? To find out I bought Dirt; The Lowdown on Growing a Garden with Style, written by fashion maven Dianne Benson, who took up gardening after her several ultra-stylish Manhattan boutiques (you may remember Dianne B.) went belly-up. The book is written in that breathless way fashion people have: cimicifuga is “divine,” veltheimia “gasp-provoking,” and hellebores “nirvanic.” Dianne worships at the shrine of the immortal Vita Sackville West, with whom she is on a first-name basis: “Vita” would adore the Fritillaria meleagris among the Darwin tulips, etc. (I must mention here that I am indebted to Dianne for putting me on to Fritillaria meleagris, a spring bulb with a maroon and cream plaid flower.) Mother Nature is another of Dianne’s close confidantes, referred to throughout the book as “Mama.”
Clinging to the hope that the author is camping it up on purpose, just to make the mouths of midwestern simpletons fall open and to tweak dour perfectionists such as Dianne’s East Hampton neighbor and gardening rival artha Stewart, you read on. After all, the author does ninety percent of the dirty work of gardening herself. Also, she truly despises the frumpy clothes sold in most gardening catalogs. Even I can see that a denim jumper with small flowers embroidered across the bodice is embarrassing.
So here’s Dianne’s gardening get-up: “boots; breeches; silk underwear for the cold; a turtleneck; white shirt or t-shirt; and my vest.” Why the vest? you ask. Why the semi-colons? is my question. But then, I’m not a fashion person. There is a large photo of the author near a small one of the divine Vita逆he two are dressed exactly alike right down to the underwear, I’m guessing. You’ll be relieved to know that on rainy days, rubber boots or clogs (available from J. Crew) may be substituted for the leather lace-up riding boots are shown in the picture.