On October 10, the National Sporting Library & Museum hosted "Cover Your Parts," a lively talk by celebrated author and Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club (VA) Master Rita Mae Brown. Including images from centuries of sporting art, her presentation followed the practical and cultural origins of the habits worn in the field today. Brown, author of the "Sister" Jane Arnold and Sneaky Pie Brown mystery series, punctuated her remarks with anecdotes from both ancient history (Herodotus) and more recent times (her mother), much to the delight of more than 60 attendees.
Rita Mae Brown, MFH, addresses the packed room of sporting and literary enthusiasts. M. Drum photo.
A traditionalist, always finely turned out when hunting, Brown highlighted the themes of class, function, innovation of materials, and romance that have shaped the evolution of hunt attire. Tying in with the NSLM's current exhibit, "The Horse in Ancient Greek Art," she began her analysis with early depictions of mounted hunting, and followed the influences of wealth and trade on the development of the sport. By Queen Elizabeth I's time, for example, cotton had become a fabric available to the upper classes; with Charles I's reign, heeled boots had proven their value in the stirrup. Boiled wool from the Austrians, the transition from corsets to more comfortable undergarments for ladies, and in this century, the embrace of helmets with chin straps, reflect the dynamic nature of clothes that we often consider static or traditional.
Referring to the sporting images projected beside her, Brown reminded the audience that the individuals being painted would have been wealthy, wearing custom-made clothing: "No wonder they looked good - though if you're being painted by Munnings, the chances are you are fabulous anyway." She noted their education, also - often at elite schools such as Eton and Oxford - which contributed to the beautiful language of many eighteenth and nineteenth century hunting diaries. Colors or livery worn by hunt servants identified their employer; the type of hat worn - bowler, derby, top hat or cap - could indicate employment or, for ladies, the rider's marital status.
Brown also highlighted the connection between political and military history and foxhunting. She shared the Duke of Wellington's reflection that his victory over Napoleon's forces at Waterloo was, at least in part, due to his officers' backgrounds as foxhunters. Their experience riding to hounds gave them the ability to read the territory better than their French opponents.
Rita Mae Brown, MFH was introduced by Anne Marie Barnes, Clarice and Robert H. Smith Educator at NSLM. M. Drum photo.
Throughout her talk, which was followed by several questions from the audience, Brown displayed her sharp observational humor: "If the world made sense, men would ride sidesaddle," "Mother used to say, 'Texas is more cactus than magnolia,'" "You know you're in trouble in the hunt field when you hear somebody counting strides -- yikes! Stay away!" "While I look forward to meeting departed huntsmen, I generally feel that death is an overrated experience," and other colorful quips best repeated during a check or at the tailgate.
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