Mankind’s love of horses is older than recorded time and continues today. Nothing compares to a gallop; your mount gliding swift and even, barely making contact with the ground, rider and steed as one, practically on wings. Early in the 1800s the male wardrobe was entirely designed around travel in a saddle. As the century wore on, infrastructure throughout Britain improved, people started to journey more by carriage, train, and finally automobiles. The clothing reflected this trend, but overall, most men could climb on a horse anytime, whatever they were wearing, and ride comfortably. Of course there were exceptions, like formal wear, court dress, &c., but even those outfits only required the addition of a decent pair of boots. This option wasn’t true for women.
The Victorian’s adored horses and wealthy ladies often rode daily, for travel, exercise, pleasure, and hunting. Due to their lavish wardrobes, the styles and expense, riding habits were crafted specifically for equestrian pursuits. This wasn’t a new fashion trend, but previously only a small portion of ladies rode recreationally, while during the 1800s the upper and middle-classes grew considerably, and with them thousands of fashion-conscious females with a desire to ride and be seen riding. The word ‘habit’ comes from the old French abit, meaning clothing, and originally referred to ecclesiastical attire, but came to mean any outfit for a specific purpose. Riding habits have always taken cues from male dress through the centuries, and examining examples from Victorian times doesn’t veer from the practice.
It should be noted, some habits were casual (for country hacking, visiting friends, &c.), some were formal (for fox hunts, riding London’s parks, &c.), and some were in between. This held true for men and their various suits. An estate habit could be informal and have jackets and skirts of different fabric and colours, an ‘in town’ habit would match as a suit. A pair of leather gauntlets were fine for the country, but only kidskin would do in the city. Most fashion plates show women wearing beige or white gloves, which would be kidskin in natural colour or bleached. This leather is made from the hide of a young goat and is soft and stretchy, also known as wash-leather or chamois (although the latter is actually an antelope). Women also wore snug tailored wash-leather drawers for riding.
While there were different styles of habits, they had certain defining features. The skirts were generally a third longer than a normal hem length, to provide a long drape. Sewn into the front was a loop for a lady to slip around her boot by the outside stirrup, keeping the skirt from flying up. Sometimes near the trailing edge of the skirt was another loop to wear around the wrist or onto a button after dismounting, to ease walking with all the voluminous material. If there wasn’t a carrying loop the ladies would gather the skirt and hold it over an arm. The skirt could trail after getting to relatively clean pavement, cobblestones, &c. Skirts usually had at least one hidden pocket sewn in for a handkerchief. In 1885, snap fasteners were invented, and shortly after that a form of safety skirt for riding that would tear open along the line of snaps if a lady fell. In Edwardian times an apron-style skirt was offered with much less material which would be buttoned closed when dismounting.
The jackets were tailored tight and normally looser in the sleeves to allow control of the reins. The styles somewhat followed fashion decade by decade, with lappets and peplums covering the hips coming and going, along with flared and gigot sleeves. Lapels went wide, narrow, and vanished altogether with military stock collars. Military influences remained a constant, women asking for soutache and galloon trim.
Habits were commonly dark coloured, to hide the dirt that naturally goes with riding, but light colours were used for summer. The best winter habits were made of very expensive velvet, usually of deep dark colours. Velveteen (cotton), developed in the late 1700s, could be used to produce a habit that looked like velvet, but was not as warm. Felted wool was the choice of most women; warm and practical. The quality of the wool, depth of the colour, and skill of the tailor determined the value. Expensive summer habits were made of silk, with yards and yards of pleated skirting. As cotton manufacturing progressed (and sateen was developed) less costly warm weather habits were made that looked like silk.
Before the late 1850s the dyes were all natural and added to the cost. Post 1860 saw the use of chemical dyes (first developed in 1856) and made strong colours affordable. Velveteen and sateen was considered inelegant by the upper-crust of British society up until about the 1860s or 70s, when the fabrics met greater acceptance with the growing upper and middle-classes. “One was a lady, attired in an elegant, blue, velveteen riding-habit, with hat and feather to match, and with silky brown hair falling over her shoulders down to her horse’s croup.” Brighter Britain by W.D. Hay, London 1882. However, many individuals at the top of society insisted on silk fabrics (satin and velvet), and looked down their noses at anything cotton. We see it still today, with those who desire silk spending much more on undergarments, gowns, shirts, ties, suits, &c., than those satisfied with cotton or synthetic fabrics.
Hats for casual hacking were often wide-brimmed to keep the sun off a lady’s perfect pale complexion. Some equestrian headdresses included a chin strap (which could alternatively be tied under the hair), but they were seldom shown in paintings or fashion plates. At the start of Victoria’s reign, top hats and military styled peaked hats were popular for in town or fox hunting, but by the early 1840s toppers took over. These high hats might be plain in shape, or swoop-brimmed, and tapered or flare-crowned. The ladies’ toppers frequently followed the male fashion trends. The hats fit around the head (worn firmly in place) until the late 1860s or so, when women started favouring smaller headdresses perched forward and secured with a hatpin. What about sunburns? A sheer veil would be worn with the hats to filter the sun, and catch any clods of mud thrown up during a gallop. When a lady dismounted she would merely raise her veil and have a clean face for the post-hunt libation, conversation, and perhaps flirting. Late in the 1800s women started wearing bowlers with their habits. Bowlers were first made in 1849 as a hard hat for gamekeepers to wear.
Riding pants were worn by women under their habit skirts at least as early as the 1830s. These trousers were crafted long and (like male pants at the time) covered the legs completely, held down with a buttoned strap or elastic under the waist (the part betwixt the heel and sole) of their boots. Examples of breeches also exist, which ended just below the knees. When riding pants started to be explicitly included as part of a habit I couldn’t determine, but museums have matching sets (jacket, skirt, and trousers) in their collections from the 1880s and on. Any habit made from 1890 and later that had a safety skirt included breeches, as a thrown lady might lose her skirt entirely. Early examples of side-saddle breeches, with the leg buttons on the outside of the left leg and inside of the right leg, date from the 1850s. Along with the habit a lady could purchase corsets, shirts, waistcoats, boots, hats, and accessories, all made specifically for riding. If you examine the pictures in this article you will see examples of whips and canes. Whips were for in town circumstances, while canes were for the countryside; the crook being used for opening gates between pastures without dismounting.
Of course women rode side-saddle, and were almost always depicted riding on the near side (with their legs to the left). However, saddles were also crafted with the horns to the far side (right) so a lady could alternate day after day. Horses were specifically trained to accept left and right side-saddles, and for mounting on the right hand side. Alexandra of Denmark (1844 – 1925), the consort of Edward VII, always rode on the off side due to a hip problem. The standard of mounting on the left side is because in a right hand dominant world, men wore their swords hanging from their left hips. Cavalrymen wore their sabres and sabretaches (a leather case or pocket) hanging on the left. It made sense to train horses for left side mounting, but it wasn’t a hard and fast rule. This mounting on the left influenced early motorcycle design, echoes of which carry on today.
Interestingly, in the 1600s it was perfectly acceptable for women to ride astride, and their outfits included trousers, and petticoats that unbuttoned up the front and back. Through the 1700s a lady straddling a horse grew less acceptable, and by the Regency era any woman riding astride was considered a hoyden and of questionable moral character. This would happen again as girls started riding bicycles in the late Victorian era. Jumping while riding side-saddle is no more dangerous than jumping astride; a woman’s legs are secure when she bends them around the fixed head (top) and leaping head (lower) pommels.
Exorbitant sums were paid for beautiful horses. It was during the Victorian era that so many breeds were named and categorized. Many women may have opted for pony breeds day-to-day, but hot-bloods built to jump were the most popular for hunters. Thoroughbreds fetched the largest sums, and were a breed developed in England during the 17th and 18th centuries when native horses were crossed with ‘Oriental’ stallions. A Thoroughbred foal must be able to trace its line back to three original studs. Pony breeds are less than 14 and 1/2 hands at the shoulder (58”/146 cm). A hand is four inches. Hot-bloods are bred for speed and agility with long legs and slim build. Cold-bloods are the draught horses, usually 16 to 19 hands at the shoulder (64”/162.5 cm to 76”/193 cm) with quiet temperaments. Warm-bloods were a cross between the hot-bloods and cold-bloods resulting in taller, stronger horses, with quieter dispositions than hot-bloods, and are now recognized breeds.
A huge part of the Victorian calendar included horse competitions. Newmarket Racecourse in Suffolk was and is considered the home of British horse racing, with meets going back to the reign of James I (1566 – 1625). Epsom Downs in Surrey is almost as old, with records showing contests as early as 1625 when one of the competitors fell and broke his neck. Ascot Racecourse might be the most famous, founded by Queen Anne in 1711, associated closely with the Royal Family, and located near Windsor Castle. Originally a four day event (now five days) was held annually in June leading up the the Saturday nearest the summer solstice (Midsummer) and is known as the Royal Ascot. This was an important part of a débutantes presentation season, and included balls and other social events. To be invited to attend the races from the Royal Enclosure was considered an outstanding opportunity to catch the eye of a high-born suitor.
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