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.
I started riding at the ancient age of 23, and an even older woman who started lessons at the same time graduated to become a good side-saddle rider. I can only remember a few details but I think you sit normally, with your hips facing forward. Only your right (or left) leg is different. The long whip acts as your “other” leg. Our horsemaster said “it’s impossible for a lady to fall out of a side-saddle” but he didn’t mention being thrown, or rolled (although side-saddle horses are picked for their docility)! He also said Victorian ladies always had TWO side-saddles (one near-side, one off-side) so that their bodies didn’t become overdeveloped in one direction. I’m not sure women would have taken jumps at all until relatively recently. There were always lots of handsome chaps to manage gates for you 😉 Surtees writes about a dashing lady hunter, but she’s considered “fast” (can’t remember her name, it’s been so long since I read the books!) and in real life I think “Skittles” was one of the first – ahem- aristocratic ladies to jump. That was in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century, I think.
You have hidden depths I had no idea of, Christina. From what I’ve read, you are right that side-saddle riders sit normally with the hips and back facing forward. Posture is very important. I had read somewhere about the two side-saddles but I wasn’t convinced until now, especially as I’ve never seen an example of an off-side one. So thanks for that. The “leaping horn” was added to side-saddles in the 19th century but I’m not sure exactly when and I can’t now find the reference. I vaguely remember it was in the first half so ladies may have been jumping earlier than you think.
PS Found a reference that says the “leaping horn” was added in the 1830s
Absolutely fascinating. I admit that I never went through the small girl’s pony phase and like my horses best at a distance. I got chased (well, more stalked really) round a field by a curious pony and when they’re breathing down your neck you do realise how powerful they are.
The video shows all the dangers that I would be aware of if anyone tried to make me ride sidesaddle. Terrifying.
But, on the other hand, the costume does look remarkably attractive. I’ve been remembering Margaret Rutherford in Murder at the Gallop wearing one. She looked very handsome in hers.
Agree that the costume looks attractive but, for us modern women, it sounds horrendous. You’d be wearing your normal tight-waisted corsets, your habit shirt, a waistcoat, and on top you’d have a heavily boned riding habit jacket. I was amused by this description by Emily Post in the early 20th century:
“A riding habit, no matter what the fashion happens to be, is like a uniform, in that it must be made and worn according to regulations. It must above all be meticulously trig and compact. Nothing must be sticking out a thousandth part of an inch that can be flattened in…”
Says it all, really 😉
Hurrah! It came through. I was one of those pony-mad girls (hence broken coccyx(sp?), broken collar bone, concussion etc etc) from 10 onwards, but it didn’t go off. One thing I’d like to know – and feel I ought to know already – is when did ladies start to ride astride? Did it coincide with bicycle riding? Hoping to go back to it via Riding for the Disabled post-covid. Beautiful photographs, Joanna.
Glad email blog is working, Lesley. However, my email copy didn’t have the video or even a link to it. Must make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Riding astride? I believe Eleanor of Aquitaine did so, going on crusade with her husband. The Empress Matilda rode a war horse, astride, to lead her army against Stephen of Blois in the 12th century. Until the invention of the pommel (16th century?) it wasn’t safe to ride any way except astride.
This Wiki article dates the resumption of riding astride to colonialism and world travel (because ladies had to ride animals unused to side-saddles) but says the taboo largely persisted until World War I. It also says one of Libertà’s heroines, Isabella Bird, was instrumental in changing it. Given the kind of woman Isabella was, I’m not surprised.
Great post, Joanna. I love the riding habits (particularly the pink one!)
Thanks, Sarah. But oh those nipped-in waists 😉
The habits look fabulous and I love that video. Really informative. Some of the fashion plates for riding dresses might not even have been intended for ladies to ride in, as they did wear them for travel sometimes. Cunnington has an illustration of a riding habit in 1785 and as you mention it’s the top half that has the “look”. The hat she’s wearing would never stay on in a wind on horseback! There’s also one of 1789 from the back, with nipped in waist and voluminous skirt, also with a wide-brimmed hat that wouldn’t stay on for five minutes. Unless they rode very sedately. There’s a portrait of Letty Lade on horseback by Stubbs and she’s wearing a tall hat with feathers and a fabulous blue habit. I expect you know it. Also a Gainsborough of a lady in red in riding habit with feathered hat. Maybe they used hat pins?
You’re right, of course, about wearing a riding habit for travel, Liz. Agree about keeping the hats on. Sometimes they had chin straps. A proper made-to-measure top hat should have stayed on, if worn properly. You may be right about hat pins, though not for top hats or bowlers.
For those who’d like to see the paintings Liz mentioned:
the Gainsborough lady in red is here
the Stubbs of Letty Lade is here
and there’s another one I found here (attributed to Gainsborough by one website but actually by Karl Bryullov 1799-1852) in which the lady seems to be wearing mostly white satin. And is she in control of that horse?
Oh, my goodness, such lovely outfits and delightful white on white embroidery. These items will feature in my next story. And I would love to try on that pink jacket.
I do agree that the white on white embroidery is gorgeous, Beth. As to trying on that jacket, I have to admit that it is very small and I am not 😉
Perfect timing. I’ve a lady riding about in 1832 with only a vague notion of what she might be wearing. It’s a tricky period to google. Thank you.
Welcome, Sue. Glad if it’s useful. One of the (many) things I don’t know about riding habits is exactly when ladies started wearing riding breeches and boots under their habit skirts. The prints seem to show petticoats and shoes. But can you imagine the chafing if you had your leg round that pommel with little more than a silk stocking to protect your skin? So I imagine that wearing something more substantial could have started quite early. The wiki article I referred to in my reply to Lesley says that ladies’ riding breeches and boots were made by men’s tailors rather than dressmakers and that said tailors had to employ female assistants to do the fitting. But, frustratingly, the article gives no date.
Having posed the question of breeches, I couldn’t resist a bit more research. In Cunnington’s English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century I find a mention of pantaloons being worn with riding habits in 1827 (though attributed to Paris). In 1838, Cunnington says pantaloons of white coutil (twilled cotton cloth rather like jean) were worn with riding habits. In 1840, he notes that the pantaloons were strapped (ie under the boot). Haven’t found any mention there of riding breeches with top boots so presumably that’s much later. (Norris illustrates it from 1890.)
My late Cousin Coralie, who used to ride side saddle when young, once demonstrated how to get down from a horse when you’d been riding side saddle by sitting in the arm of a sofa.. You unhooked your legs from the two pommels and slid down gracefully into the arms of – either a groom – or, if you were lucky, a handsome man! Knowing Coralie, I suspect that there was usually an attentive male to hand!
What a lovely story, Elizabeth. And a lovely mental image. Of course, in our books, there’s usually a handsome young man to hand, so to speak 😉
According to this blogger, close-fitting chamois (wash-leather) drawers were the Regency equestrienne’s secret under-armour.
Like the breeches that modern side-saddle riders wear under their habits, suèded leather drawers would have helped with grip around the saddle-horn, as well as to stop chafing.
Thank you for the comment, Kara, and the blog reference. Not sure it’s actually Regency, though. The blogger specifically says she has no evidence of such drawers before 1830 so it’s William IV and Victoria, rather than George IV or Regency. And her blog title does refer to Victorian riding habits.
In fact, the Cunningtons’ History of Underclothes does quote an advert from 1811 for “Ladies Hunting and Opera drawers in elastic India cotton” though I’m not sure what the reference to Hunting might mean. Hunting mixed with Opera does sound odd, doesn’t it? The Cunningtons also quote the following from 1828: “Many ladies when riding wear silk drawers similar to what is worn when bathing.” I didn’t find a reference to chamois drawers until 1854 when Cunnington quoted an advert for “Ladies riding trousers, of chamois leather and black feet”.
So it appears they were in use but possibly not as early as the Regency period.