Riding habits of the 19th century were both fashionable and functional. They were designed to flatter the figure, camouflage the dirt, and withstand the physical rigors of horseback riding. These basic, practical considerations did not change a great deal from season to season. As a result, the favored fabrics, cuts, and colors of riding habits at the end of the century were, in general, not hugely dissimilar from those at the beginning. As an 1842 issue of The Lady’s Companion states:
“While carriage and walking-dresses are continually changing in fashion, there occurs but little or no variation in the style of riding habits.”
This does not mean that every riding habit was identical. There were, in fact, significant changes in the placing of the waistline over the century, as well as in the preferred styles for buttons, trims, and hats. In 1806, La Belle Assemblée decreed that, for the summer, a bonnet with the peak made of straw and the crown made of white silk was “always worn by ladies who indulged in the pleasure of horseback riding.” As for the rest of the riding costume:
“Nothing is more fashionable for riding on horseback than an ash-coloured habit. Green, however, is somewhat prevalent; the buttons are either worked or covered with the same as the habit.”
An 1812 edition of The Edinburgh Annual Register describes an elegant habit made of blue cloth and trimmed down each side of the front and on the hips with Spanish Buttons. A “small woodland hat, whose colour corresponds to the dress,” buff gloves, and half-boots (of either buff jean or leather) complete the picture.
The coat, vest, and skirts that comprised the typical riding habit were a striking combination. They were also a peculiarly masculine one. So much so that many women preferred to have their riding habits cut by a tailor instead of by the modiste or seamstress who made their gowns. Elegance and simplicity reigned supreme and any efforts to decorate the riding habit with an excess of feathers or a tasteless display of trim was frowned upon by the fashion magazines. An excerpt from the 1821 issue of The Dublin Inquisitor says it best:
“Blue riding habit and ostrich feathers! – In the name of taste and fashion, and all that you used to admire, how are you so much perverted?”
The years between 1820 and 1830 saw what one magazine describes as the “ugliest fashions” in riding habits. Bearing a resemblance to women’s ordinary dress, the habits of that period consisted of long, gathered garments, “monstrous stove pipe” hats, and gauze veils which “fell loosely to the waist in front.” This was a period of transition into the elegant, more masculine riding habits of the middle and end of the century. As an article in the 1889 issue of The Women’s World states:
“Here we have the germ from which, in the evolution of fashion, has been developed the completely appropriate costume of today.”
According to The Lady’s Companion, styles in riding habits from the 1830s to the 1840s underwent no material change. In both decades, the riding habit could be worn “buttoned up to the throat,” “left half open at the chest,” or “thrown entirely open to display a smart and handsome vest.” Skirts were long, reaching well below the feet. And as for the color:
“The color of the habit, to be in good taste, should never be light. A clear blue (royal blue) has always been, and will probably continue to be the favorite color. It is a well-known fact that George II caused the naval uniform to be changed from scarlet to blue, in consequence of his majesty having admired a splendid blue riding habit, worn by the Duchess of Bedford.”
The color green and the color purple were also worn, but as the magazine declares “neither looks so well as blue.” This does not stop the beautiful Blanche Ingram from donning a purple riding habit in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. As Brontë writes:
“Her purple riding-habit almost swept the ground, her veil streamed long on the breeze; mingling with its transparent folds, and gleaming through them, shone rich raven ringlets.”
There were, of course, exceptions to the rule. The Duchess of Rutland, for example, was fond of a sky blue habit with silver buttons, a white hat, and a very high-shirt color. However, as The Lady’s Companion explains, “her grace was gifted with personal attractions that might excuse any eccentricity.” In other words, a singularly beautiful lady might be permitted to stray from the preferred colors in riding habits, but for an average mortal, eccentricity was generally discouraged.
No matter the color, in the mid-century, the collar of the riding habit must be velvet. The cuffs were often velvet as well. The vest was usually buff or light blue and “small shirt-collars with some showy color” were considered to be more becoming than even the finest lace. As for the buttons, The Lady’s Companion states:
“Purple and green habits should be trimmed with stuff buttons; but blue habits should always be ornamented with small gilt buttons, very rich in luster, perfectly plain on the surface, and set closely together in the rows. These buttons are always worn on the vest, when the bodice is thrown open.”
As a general principle, the habit must have a close bodice, tight sleeves, and a long skirt. The only variations were in the style of the bodice. According to The Lady’s Companion, there are three distinct bodice styles:
“First, the military form, (buttoned up to the neck); second, the half-chest, or jacket form; third, the open form with a vest underneath.”
Hats were expected to be in good taste. A neat cap of velvet or cloth equipped with a veil was preferable to a Leghorn or cottage bonnet (which might prove troublesome by flapping about in a high wind). Gloves were purely practical items, with worsted gloves being superior to those made of kid. Kid gloves were known to chafe on the reins.
From the date of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne to the mid-1860s, The Women’s World magazine states that “low crowned hats with flowing plumes seem to have been almost universally worn.” Otherwise, the tight bodice and “full, floating habit-skirt” had not altered at all from the style of habit popular in the 1840s.
Meanwhile, elegance and simplicity were still the last word in riding habits well into the 1880s, with an 1887 equestrian manual stating:
“A riding habit should be distinguished by its perfect simplicity. All attempts at display, such as feathers, ribbons, glaring gilt buttons, and sparkling jet, should be carefully avoided, and the dress should be noticeable only for the fineness of its material and the elegance of its fit.”
By the end of the century, solid, plain cloth riding habits had given way to colored waistcoats and a variety of hats ranging from “the round felt and the soft wide-awake to the jaunty little sailor hat for summer mornings.” As The Women’s World magazine reports:
“Everything, indeed, tends to a rational form of riding-dress. Habits are not so short as they were last year, neither is it considered necessary to exhibit an ‘hour-glass’ waist in the saddle, while the form of head-covering is left widely to the fair rider’s taste.”
The drift toward greater functionality and freedom of personal expression in riding habits was reflective of changing public views, not just of women, but of exercise and athletics. Accomplished equestriennes were beginning to be appreciated as much for their skill in the saddle as for the cut of their coat. Of course, an elegant riding habit must always be admired, but as the 19th century drew to a close, no longer could it be said of the female equestrian that “graceful as may be the style of her riding, there is little that is interesting in her appearance unless she is properly attired.”
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
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