In this occasional series on costume, we’ve featured a lot of day wear, but never what ladies wore when they went riding. The image above shows the Berrington Hall stables and a green riding habit on a mannequin. The waist is around the normal place and it doesn’t have full upper sleeves, so it probably dates from the late 1820s or early 1830s though it could be Victorian.
The development of the riding habit
Judging by the Paris prints, the riding habit changed a lot in the early part of the 19th century. In the Regency period, they looked pretty much like pelisses, except with much more skirt. Here are two, dating from 1816 and 1817, courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum collection.
The 1816 habit doesn’t look all that comfortable to me. The lady is wearing a top hat which was quite normal. Did it stay on well when she was riding over fences? One wonders. In the 1817 print, the lady is wearing an Italian straw bonnet with a veil. Odd? Possibly. Precious little protection if you fall off. Then again, the poke might give better sun protection than a top hat.
By the 1830s, the riding habit was even more voluminous. These prints, from 1830 and 1832, show front and back views and demonstrate how sleeves expanded into the huge gigot or leg-of-mutton shapes. Three of the ladies are wearing classic top hats, with fluttering veils to add a touch of femininity. The lady on the right in the 1832 print is wearing a sugar-loaf hat with a chinstrap. Much less likely to come off.
In the 1830 print (shown left), they are also wearing habit shirts with large collars and coloured neckties. Their buttoned boots are pale yellow. Not very practical for riding, maybe? Why not proper riding boots, one wonders? Or were the pretty shoes just for the prints and not worn in real life? Note the very long whip or cane, necessary for riding side-saddle.
What to wear under your riding habit?
In the 1830 print above, you can see racy hints of lace petticoats under the habit. There’s no hint of petticoats in any of the other prints, though.
It was usual to wear a habit shirt under a riding habit. A habit shirt is not quite like a normal shirt. Here’s one in cotton from the 1830s (from the Hereford collection). As you can see, it would have come down no lower than the under-bust line. You can see that this habit shirt is beautifully made, complete with ruffled collar and shoulders (even though no one could see those sleeve ruffles).
Sometimes habit shirts didn’t bother with sleeves or, indeed, with anything that wasn’t on show. Look at these examples, which are little more that beautiful shirt fronts. The material is so thin that it could have served no purpose other than decoration to fill the neckline of the habit. (Click to enlarge so you can see the gorgeous white-on-white embroidery.)
The 1830 front shown below, made of white lawn with delicious ruffles down the neckline, has almost nothing at the back of it at all. I do wonder how it stayed in place. Possibly because the habit jacket was so strongly boned that the lady rider (already corseted) could barely move?
Riding Habits in Museums
Few of the riding habits preserved in museums include the skirt. That’s not surprising, I suppose, because there’s not much of interest in a huge amount of plain fabric.
For example, this frogged buff-coloured riding habit (shown right) from the Hereford collection, has only the jacket, without a skirt. Looking at the style of it, with the natural waist and the huge cuffs, it doesn’t look like a Regency habit.
Below is a pink riding habit, in a similar style.
The pink one does have a skirt, as shown in the images. But there isn’t much to see, is there? Just a great deal of pink cloth. Pity we weren’t able to put it on a mannequin to get the full effect.
A riding habit and top hat wasn’t much protection
Riding side-saddle, possibly even riding to hounds and taking all those fences, was a dangerous occupation. Riders, both male and female, did come off. Riding accidents, and deaths, were not uncommon.
Those horsewomen didn’t just look handsome, with their nipped-in waists and embroidered habit shirts; they were also intrepid, as suggested in the image below (though I’m not sure what the roses are doing there, unless this is an image of a painting and the roses happened to be in front of it). The bowler-hatted lady’s horse, with side-saddle, is galloping away, top right. The lady’s whip doesn’t look long enough for riding side-saddle. Poetic licence by painter?
Looked at from right-hand side—as in this 1870 statue of Queen Victoria—it looks distinctly precarious to ride side-saddle. Though apparently it’s not, since the lady’s right leg is hooked over the pommel (concealed, for propriety, by an enormous skirt).
There’s a really interesting short video by English Heritage on riding side-saddle like a Victorian lady. See it below. It includes information on why the skirt was converted to an apron and how the saddle was altered to help ladies jump fences.
It’s worth watching just for that beautiful horse. Plus seeing how a side-saddle rider actually jumps fences. But no—I’ve never ridden in my life and I’m not tempted now.