A portrait of Mademoiselle Croizette riding sidesaddle on a bay horse by artist Emile Carolus-Duran, 1873

Dressed for the Ride: The history of rider wear

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Rider wear is an area of sports clothing where history, function and symbolism are uniquely interwoven. Simultaneously, the very essence of riding wear is to underscore the nobility of the horse itself, not exceed it, or draw attention away from it.1 Therefore, riding wear has traditionally been sober and understated. It’s intended to sit quietly, functionally and anonymously behind one’s skill and performance as a rider.

So, while clothes may ‘maketh the man’, they do not maketh the rider. ‘All the gear and no idea’ is something nobody wants to hear!

We riders have seen some innovation in our clothing, such as stretch materials, high-tech materials that wick sweat, suede and then silicone full-seat breeches, and so forth. Yet essentially, tradition and formality govern the look, with our basic articles of riding clothing still harking back to the military and the hunting field.

The two last major changes to its formal components were in or around the 1880s when female equestrians began to ditch the side-saddle skirt for breeches, and then much later, in the early 2000s, when the top hat, the symbol ne plus ultra of Grand Prix, began to be replaced by the safety helmet. Some commentators at the time thought that the helmet didn’t ‘look right’ with the tail-coat, but now everyone’s ‘eyes’ are well acclimatised and rider safety has been greatly enhanced(2).

Given we’ve had all of two main changes in a century to equestrian wear, I thought we might explore the importance of tradition through the comparison of images of two young, skilful women riders in formal riding attire, one hundred and forty five years apart.

On the left, we see French artist Emile Carolus-Duran’s oft reproduced ‘Equestrian Portrait of Madamoiselle Croizette’ of 1873.

Carolus-Duran was known for stylish high society portraits, and flattery and style were his hallmark. Sophie Croizette his sister-in-law, was a well-known stage actress, and here her ride along the beach is depicted as a fashion moment, as well as a portrait of an amazone or female equestrian.

In her portrait, Sophie wears a tight black jacket and the matching exquisitely cut skirt falls perfectly over her right knee as it is drawn up by her leaping head side-saddle. Riding habit skirts in this period were cut one metre longer than floor length, to accentuate the drape, but it would have been a huge amount of fabric to carry around before getting on.

Her habit is completed by a top hat and veil, the latter which is swept artfully aside by a sea breeze to reveal her features. A red rose in her buttonhole draws attention to her bosom, as does her gesture of shortening her reins, which also highlights how her right hand remains protected by a white glove, but the left is naked, maybe to aid sensitivity, and it holds the other glove. Her long riding boots, hidden here by her skirt, would have been a great comfort and protection in riding long distances.(3)

Later, we see a recent press photo of Germany’s Olympic Grand Prix rider Helen Langehanenberg competing recently on ‘Damon Hill’. Albeit riding astride and minus the skirt, Helen wears all the same items as Sophie; top hat, white gloves, beautifully cut tail-coat, her button hole here is not floral, but instead features her badges and team insignia.

She wears white breeches, a departure we may think from Sophie’s habit, but we might recall that the late nineteenth century woman’s riding habit included trousers underneath, both for modesty in the case of accidents and because petticoats hampered a deep, secure and correct seat.

Riding clothes, especially beautiful ones like the ones both our women wear, mark us out as belonging to the horse world, a world that is visually different, unique and quite unusual.

This will not come as news to those of us who have belted through the aisles of Woolies or Aldi in skin-tight, horse-snot-stained breeches. Those who wear denim breeches might think the jean illusion is successful, but usually give themselves away by “cluck-clucking” at slow moving shoppers in the liquorice aisle.

Being seen in riding gear in public, or civil space can be a weird experience. It’s subtly different to being seen in your netball, golfing or tennis gear. For a start, our look just isn’t as ‘sporty’, though I’ll grant you, the new styles of riding tights do look like runner’s gear.

Riding wear is also peculiar in that although riding is an intensely physical activity, we generally don’t show much skin – face and arms at the most. In all, riding wear is visually codified in its own distinctive ways; it can signify privilege, even wealth, (erroneously in many cases!) it may signify leisure time, (hah! Really?) It can signify the smells of human-equine close contact (that’s why people edge away…) but mostly it signifies membership of a strange club.

The aesthetic of riding wear for each discipline also marks out where the wearer sits in ‘field’ of endeavour, whether that be at the top maybe for professionals, or within a broader base as leisure riders.

Given the importance of tradition, ritual and symbolism in the design of riding clothes, it’s not then surprising that elaborate rules govern dress for the competitive modes of most disciplines. The Olympic disciplines mandate every item of apparel, right down to precise saturation of hue in jackets.

More leeway is given in Western disciplines but they are as powerfully governed by a particular look, brands, and the codes of history and functionality.

As well as respecting tradition, the other intention of these rules and their underpinning of a ‘uniform’ is to create as much of a visual ‘equal playing field’ for judges as possible.

Such an insistence on a uniform dress code for all can seem hidebound to some, but on the other hand, it acknowledges the uniqueness of equine sports; the only Olympic one with a non-human partner, the only one where men and women compete equally, and one of the few with no age barriers besides those self-imposed. Within the rules, riders imaginatively personalise their ‘look’ in subtle ways.

Equestrianism is also one of the few sports where amateurs and professionals compete against each other. In any case, in a practical sense, both amateur and professional riders have the same needs for both, formal and informal clothing that moves with the body yet moulds to it; breeches that fit, shirts or polos that tuck-in, solid, well-made boots that don’t create ulcerated heels, and a current safety-marked helmet. This holds  whether you are riding one horse a day or ten.

Attempts to ‘sex up’ or alter the mandatory competition clothing is usually disastrous and creates outcries from all levels, grass roots to elite. It can lose an event sponsor as well; for example when in an attempt to ‘broaden appeal’ British Masters Show jumping in Chester in 2008 provided betting facilities, riders replaced their red jackets with polo tops, and organisers advertised this by publishing two photos of top female riders on hay bales in their polo shirts and knickers, with boots on and not much else.

Many were horrified, including Barclays Wealth, who pulled their branding for the event, stating these images ‘were not in line with their diversity principles’.(5)

Professionals were quizzed in the equine press about the idea of revamping the top level competition wear and most were against it; noting how the tail-coat and shadbelly were a hard-earned symbol of reaching an international level of skill; others said they thought it was elegant and yet others said they would be reluctant to let go of their ‘lucky’ items. Charlotte Dujardin, for example, says she started wearing her lucky breeches, (Pikeur ‘Candela’ high waisted with suede seat) in 2011, that she was in them for the breaking of all her world records and they went to two Olympic Games. They were ‘retired’ along with her horse Valegro in 2016. She notes ‘It was hard to keep them white.”(6)

At the time, Glen Gilmore, captain of the Australian polo team, made the point that most agreed with, which was that it was unnecessary. He said ‘there is no need to sex things up … after all, it can’t get any sexier than a really beautiful boy or girl on an amazing horse’.(7) In any case, people were suspicious that the call was coming from broadcasters rather than sponsors, and the former wanting ‘tele-visuality’ before screening equestrian sport in prime slots.

In contrast to formal wear, the trend in casual riding clothes has been in two directions, towards seasonal colours and ‘matchy matchy’. These have been a gift to riding wear merchandisers. Additionally, matching riding clothes to one’s horse’s saddle blanket, boots and ears, can be fun, and it certainly makes for a more pulled-together look in photographs, although it can be hard to do on a daily basis.

In sum, whether we’re opening a walk-in closet to reveal shelves of colour-coded European label breeches, polos, base layers and gilets, or frantically scrambling through the dirty clothes hamper looking for a least-stained pair of jodhs, we should recall our sartorial history.

This is particularly important as women riders, as nothing beats contemporary riding clothing for sheer ease, in comparison with the full Victorian riding habit. Yet that heavy, hot and restrictive garment was a rung in the ladder to freedom. As Alison David has written ‘The modern horse woman [of the 19th century] … adopted the first sports costume specifically designed for women … the riding habit’s combination of style and practicality launched the fashion for more gender-neutral, utilitarian garments, and heralded the advent of the twentieth century working women’s uniform, the tailored suit.’ So yes, essentially, she means that we are still wearing ‘riding’ clothes in the office!

Footnotes:

  1. This old barb has been in the equestrian lexicon for as long as time – and was most famously directed by misogynist weekly illustrated papers like Punch at the ‘fast girls and women’ riding out in London’s Rotten Row in the 19th century – the ‘pretty horse-breakers’ who broke also from the traditional sober black for riding habits and – in order to attract attention, wore coloured and embellished habits Alison Matthews David, ‘Elegant Amazons: Victorian Riding habits and the Fashionable Horsewoman’, Victorian Literature and Culture, (20020, 179-210).
  2. Charlotte Dujardin commented, ‘Riders used to wear a top hat for dressage but it’s not safe – there’s no protection. I’ve worn a crash hat since 2011 after I had a fall and fractured my skull [in 2009]. I was one of the first riders to compete in a helmet. Now everyone does it and it looks strange if people have top hats on.’  https://www.you.co.uk/emotional-ties-charlotte-dujardin/
  3. http://www.victoriana.com/victorian-riding-habits/
  4. Jackets and Coats 5.8, d) the colour of the jacket or coat should be a dark colour having a brightness value of less than 32% on the international HSV colour scale. Refer to the FEI website for Colour Chart http://www.fei.org/fei/disc/dressage/useful-docs. p 56. Equestrian Australia National Dressage Rules 2019.
  5. https://www.hitc.com/en-gb/2008/07/31/top_firm_said_saves_1bn_from_c/
  6. Ibid.
  7. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/features/3637522/British-show-jumping-hyping-up-the-horseplay.html.
Dr Georgina Downey

An art historian who's published extensively on the domestic interior, Dr Georgina Downey is the human of Classic, the dressage schoolmaster and Angas, the Cairn terrier. In this regular Horses and People in Art column, she provides a unique equine-centred perspective to famous equestrian artworks.

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