Whilst driving through the country lanes recently I came across several members of our local Hunt hacking back to their horseboxes. The gents certainly looked dashing in their 'pink' but my attention was caught by an elegant lady riding side-saddle and sporting a traditional side-saddle habit, top hat and veil. Side-saddle is becoming increasingly popular across UK Hunts and harks back to bygone days when ladies were seldom seen riding astride as this was considered most unseemly.
It was actually not until the latter half of the sixteenth century that riding clothing for women appeared in the form of protective overskirts or 'safeguards', cloaks, boots, hats and masks (to save the complexion from the elements!). Until then, ladies wore their everyday dresses for riding. What a nightmare! Just imagine all those petticoats!
When the first proper riding habits appeared they were quite military in style with elaborate trimmings and fine fabrics being used, and a great deal of influence taken from the French court. Designs quickly became more practical and less ornate with the English hunting gentleman becoming the inspiration. By the end of the eighteenth century the riding coat (redingote) was established. This garment was based on a coachman's coat with a close-fitting bodice, buttoned skirt and double or triple cape-collar.
Time passed and fashions changed. During the early part of the nineteenth century a straighter cut habit was preferred with a high waistline and pleated jacket back, and fine wool or velvet replaced heavy brocade. After the 1820s styles changed again; skirts became more voluminous teamed with jackets featuring large peplums and puffed sleeves.
In the 1880s, fashions changed again and saw slim-line, dark coloured habits en vogue. These featured high buttoned bodices with jacket tails and trousers instead of the traditional petticoats. Such a design clearly suited the tall and slender lady rider. One equestrienne of note at that time was Empress Elizabeth of Austria who was actually sewn into her riding couture each morning before hunting to ensure the most streamlined of fits!
The twentieth century saw the very first patented safety skirts introduced teamed with flared, long-line jackets. The safety skirt was designed so that its whole length was buttoned and this gradually evolved into the open-sided apron worn with a cutaway jacket and trousers which could also be worn by ladies riding astride whilst allowing them to retain a degree of modesty. It is a modified version of this design which is seen today.
Whilst vintage habits certainly look beautiful, they are heavy and difficult to keep clean especially when out hunting on a wet, muddy day. An enterprising equestrian outfitter from Manchester in the UK recently responded to public demand by designing and producing an "everyday" habit. The fabric used is light, waterproof and it is hoped, machine washable, although this is still being tested. The material is a polyester-wool mix as opposed to the heavy cavalry twill or tweed used to make regular habits so it should be more comfortable during the warmer months.
The idea has certainly created a buzz of interest although in a 'straw poll' side-saddle riders said that they would probably use the "everyday" habit for training purposes or hunting on particularly wet days whilst reserving their vintage habits for showing and special occasions.