Our topic today is fall fashion. I know, that's supposed to be in Style, not Sports, but outdoorsmen have their vanity, too, and hunting gear is big business these days, according to the Outdoors Association of Fashion Specialists (OAFS), a w-i-d-e-l-y respected outfit.
Blame this diversion on Robert M. Poole, former executive editor of National Geographic magazine, who arrived for our duck hunt last week with the premiere issue of Men's Vogue tucked under his flannel-clad arm. He called my attention to an article titled "A Bloody Good Time," which chronicles a weekend bird shoot in Wales at the estate of Henry and Davina Fetherstonhaugh, a gathering of the sort neither he nor I nor anyone we know will ever be invited in a million years.
The toffs in this tale are tarted in tweed from topknot to toes. It's tradition, after all, says author A.A. Gill of the scratchy, smelly ensembles. "The English want to be loved," he writes, "despite their teeth, despite their voices and stupid names, despite their chronic studied shyness and irritating faux self-depreciation, and most of all despite their erotic-as-Tupperware country-weekend clothes."
Only an Englishman with bad teeth, a stupid name and an irritating shyness and faux self-depreciation could get away with a stereotyped slur like that. But hey, it needed to be said. Cheers, A.A.!
Over in the colonies, we're more results-oriented. And since we don't have hired beaters, stoppers, keepers and pickers-up around to do the dirty work, as the swells have at an English country shoot, our goal is generally to blend in rather than stand out. Hence, the big and growing U.S. camouflage market.
I happened to be there when this booming industry was hatched. It was back in the 1970s, when everyone was still wearing frumpy, baggy, surplus camo or wool outfits purchased at the Army-Navy store. A bright young entrepreneur named Jim Crumley was goose-guiding on the Eastern Shore and showed me a new cap he'd designed especially for bowhunters.
I have to say it was one of the silliest-looking caps I've ever seen. It was too tall and made of a greasy, spineless plastic fabric you'd expect to find on a cheap sofa cover. It had a pliable bill so that when you pulled back the bowstring it didn't interfere. But the real innovation was the camo design, made to look like the bark of a tree. Crumley called it "Trebark."
When he asked my opinion I said without reservation he was barking up the wrong tree, and of course 15 years later he was a multimillionaire living on a mountaintop in Roanoke basking in reflected glory as the originator of the modern camo movement in America, which is huge.
Trebark spawned Mossy Oak, Realtree, Predator, Natural Gear and a host of smaller companies that in the past quarter-century have finely honed the art of blending people into the woods. Today's stylishly tailored camo uses laser-age technology to imprint fabrics with photo images of actual weeds, reeds and tree trunks.
A very effective TV ad on the Outdoor Life Network presents a video of a bright green patch of spring woods with birdies chirping away and asks the viewer to find the hunters in it. The obvious answer is that there are none. Then, out they stride, a half-dozen or so in elaborate get-ups, from in front of trees, bushes and berms, all utterly invisible until they move.
The advances in camo technology came at a good time as interest in turkey hunting and bowhunting for deer expanded dramatically over the past 25 years. Both sports put a premium on invisibility. Today, every outdoors gear store from little independents in strip malls to massive box stores such as Bass Pro and Cabela's features row upon row of pricey camo gear, leaving nimrods scratching their heads over which brand to get.
Personally, I don't have a problem. I finalized my fashion philosophy after a chance meeting with Brooks Robinson, the Hall of Fame Orioles third baseman, who was promoting Crown gasoline at the local service station one fine summer day. He was decked out in free gear from head-to-toe, all of it sporting some garish logo or another.
"My rule is, if they give it to me, I'll wear it," he said. Well, if it's good enough for Brooks Robinson . . .
As a result, over the years I've accumulated quite a selection of mismatched, giveaway or deep-discount camo pants, jackets and caps, and I must say I've never had a complaint from a deer, turkey, rabbit or duck. To be honest, I think if you stood still enough you could be wearing a prison jumpsuit in the woods and the wildlife wouldn't notice.
Lately, though, I'm the envy of all my hunting buddies. My son landed a job at Under Armour, the Baltimore sports gear company that's recently swept the market with shiny, form-fitting finery for football, lacrosse and fitness buffs.
Under Armour entered the camo market this year, and every once in awhile the young whippersnapper brings home a sample and leaves it on the couch long enough for me to snatch it. They call it "loose gear," which is good, because I'm way past the form-fitting stage.
The stuff's so new, it isn't even in stores yet, so of course everybody wants it. It's a rare treat for me to soak in a warm pool of admiring gazes from my mates, after all the years of absorbing ridicule for my giveaway attire.
There's nothing like a little envy to brighten your day. I'm actually thinking of picking up some tweed for my next shooting weekend. Tea, anyone? Smoked salmon?