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The Riding Attire: a history in-between the genders

The influence riding attires have had on the development of new trends in clothing is undeniable, at least if we consider western fashions; this happened because horses have been one of the main mode of human transportation throughout many centuries; horse riding initially developed as a male setting, while women were obliged by etiquette to the sidesaddle for a long time; this division though didn’t stop the two attires – masculine and feminine – to share many similarities.

Woman's riding habit designed by M. Uhlendorff published in the Journal Des Dames, Paris, dated 30 April 1832. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum. CC BY NC

The most important features of riding costumes were comfort, protection against any weather condition and fabrics of a good quality that assured resistance and durability – all elements that were highly valued in the male dressing code as well. A formal habit for riding sidesaddle was finally recognizable since the mid-17th century. It was composed by a more ‘masculine’ top and a feminine bottom: a tailored jacket with a long skirt to match, a chemisette and a hat, in the formal men’s style of the day. The ensemble was completed by low-heeled boots, gloves and a necktie.

Riding habit shirt of linen. England, ca. 1750. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum. CC BY SA

On the contrary of the most costume changes of that period, usually influenced by France, the equestrian fashion had been leaded by England, because of the long tradition of sports involving horses and by the members of British Aristocracy, who used to spend much time in the countryside, practising hunting. Several accessories were introduced among them, giving structure to a real language and originating a sort of code: for instance a red jacket with black velvet collars signaled an experienced foxhunter. Their habits influenced other countries´ fashion, as France, which adopted the traditional frock coat cut just above the knee, changing its name from “Riding coat” to “redingote”.

Black felt two piece riding habit, signed: "Tailors to H.R.H. INFANTA EULALSE, Hass Bros, NEW YORK". Handwritten: "Miss L.M. Morgan, April 1895". Courtesy of Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation. All rights reserved

During nineteenth century, the general equestrian fashion toned down. Tailors started to make the equestrian clothes, for both women and men. Towards the mid-nineteenth century, riding became a common habit for the upper-middle class and the equestrian clothes became fashionable dress as well. Worn as informal day wear for traveling, visiting, or walking, they were less elaborate and the colours were darker than before. Also, for the first time pants were introduced for women to ride in, worn under skirts at the beginning. Both male and female riders used tweed jackets for hacking. In the beginning of the twentieth century women started to riding horses astride, breaking a long tradition. With a huge symbolic impact, this changed their habits in costume and society: from then on, more and more women rode without skirts and just wearing trousers.

When the industrialization and transport revolution introduced trains and cars, the use of horses changed and riding became just linked to sports and free time; however its influence on fashion was not over. Even today the country elegance of riding attire is still inspiring fashion houses such as Ralph Lauren and Gucci, who have their own equestrian line.

Discover more amazing pictures of riding attires on Europeana Fashion portal!

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