When women, in the beginning of the 20th century, began riding astride horses, this marked a break in a long tradition. The symbolic impact was immense: Women were becoming on bar with men. Before this, women rode in sidesaddles with skirts and dresses, stressing their femininity.
By Ane Bjølgerud Hansen
The relationship between horses and fashion has a long history. Horse clothes have been recognized as stylish “forever”. Likewise, equestrianism has had a lasting effect on fashion. Take for example the black male Western suits: The purpose of the single vent with a split was to protect riders´ backs from rain. Indeed, the accessories from equestrianism have influenced general fashion to a large extent. Just think of the hat, the knee-high boots, the gloves, whip and spurs. These accessories have been associated with the affluent horse-owning classes and therefore been seen as fashionable far beyond the riding school.
Of course, horse fashion has been characterized by comfortable and practical clothes. They have been designed to be comfortable and to serve as protection against the elements – bad weather as well as heat. The boots protect your legs from trees and branches and the hat your head. Another feature is the use of quality and expensive fabrics with long durability. As horses have been breed for war and work, these attire have been in use longest. Anyway, here, Equilife World takes a glance into the different trends within equestrian fashion for women since the 1700s.
1700s: Fancy and Elaborate
In the eighteenth century women rode in sidesaddles wearing fancy dresses or skirts. More or less copying the jackets that males wore, the top half of women´s clothes were very similar to mens´. However, the bottom part was very different as women wore skirts. The typical riding attire in the 1700s was a masculine top and feminine bottom. Military influence was huge on horse fashion in the eighteenth century, and especially so Hussar uniforms. This resulted in rich ornaments in braids in gold or silver on the breast as a combination of closing mechanism and decoration. At this time, special dressmakers made the clothes for women and the dresses were very fancy. Still, it was known that there were special “safety-skirts” being made in case a woman should fall off and not be caught on the saddle!
Because of its long tradition with sports and horses, the British have been in the lead of developing horse fashion. The aristocracy in Britain lived much of their lives at their country estates where they hunted and needed practical clothes in wool. There were color codes for the woolen jackets where for instance a red jacket with black velvet collars signaled an experienced foxhunter. British equestrian fashion influenced other countries´ – and foremost French – fashion. The French even called the traditional frock coat (man´s coat) cut just above the knee, “redingote” (riding coat).
Another space for horse and fashion has always been the races. The famous horse race scene in Leo Tolstoy´s novel Anna Karenina, set in late 19th century Russia, recalls the atmosphere. Anna´s husband reflects: “´There´s so much splendour here, one´s eyes are dazzled´”, being unable to spot his wife in “that sea of muslin, ribbons, feathers, parasols and flowers”. The races were a place to dress up in feminine attire.
Modesty in the 1800s
However, during the 1800s, the general equestrian fashion was toned down. Out went the dressmakers; henceforth tailors made the equestrian clothes, for women as well as men. Towards the middle and end of the 19th century, riding became increasingly common among the upper-middle class. The equestrian clothes were much less elaborate than before and the colors were mostly black. Especially so during the Victorian age: “A plainness (…) is to be preferred before any outward show. Ribbons, and coloured veils, and yellow gloves, and showy flowers are alike objectionable. A gaudy “get-up” is highly to be condemned, and at once stamps the wearer as a person of inferior taste. Therefore avoid it.” The advice is given in Power O´Donoghue in Ladies on Horseback from 1889.
At this time, pants were introduced for women to ride in for the first time. In the beginning, they were worn under skirts. And both male and female riders used tweed jackets for hacking.
1900: New shapes and materials
With industrialization and transport revolution introducing trains and eventually cars, the use of horses changed. Riding became increasingly linked to relaxation, sports and shows. The largest social change in modern times, female emancipation, was bound to change fashion. In the 1900s, more and more women rode without skirts. And there were very few sidesaddles after the mid-20th century.
The early 1900s was when the jodhpurs really caught on. The jodhpurs originate in, yes Jodhpur, an ancient state in Rajasthan, India, going back to the 13th century. Jodhpurs are riding trousers characterized by having wide hips (providing freedom of movement before the invention of stretch fabric) and tight legs from the knees to the ankle. They were called churidars and were worn in India for centuries. The pants became popular when polo, also from Persia and Central Asia originally, was introduced in the United Kingdom in the late 1800s. Jodhpurs became highly fashionable and have been used far beyond the horse world.
With industrialization, production of fabrics and clothes became mass-produced. And, as with most sports clothes, modern technology has introduced a range of new materials to the riders´ world: Gore-tex, cotton-lycra and oilskin. Still, the style has remained remarkably similar for a long time even if the different disciplines have their own dress codes. A helmet, beige jodhpurs, black boots and a riding jacket will take you a long way.
2000 and beyond
The love story between horses and fashion continues. From time to time, high couture designers tap into the natural, country elegance of riding attire making collections highly inspired by equestrianism. Haute couture designers such as Ralph Lauren and Gucci, the latter with its horse bit trade mark and their own equestrian line, are perhaps the best exponents of this trend. The most eager fashionista does not have too much room for maneuver in the horse world lest she could fall victim to the critical judgement of experts that transcend history. The legendary footwear designer Manolo Blahník is recently reported to have walked through the Prado museum with its director Manuela Mena Marqués, halting in font of a Velásquez painting saying: “The horse is more chic than the woman riding it”. Or maybe this is forever true?
Alison Matthews David: “Equestrian Costume”,
Side Saddle Lady Museum
Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina