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Riding Habits & Tradition

Ridign Habit Tradition: History site section Logo of ancient snaffle bit.
by Joan Gilbert (A Horse History Article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine)

If you read Rita Mae Brown s novel, Riding Shotgun, which involved time travel, you saw just how faithfully people who ride to hounds today have preserved the traditions of their counterparts from centuries past. Brown s protagonist, who wandered on a foggy morning into the lives of her forebears in 1699, felt much at home hunting with them. And she learned the practical reasons underlying some of the customs that seem strange to us now.

If today s exhibitors went back in time, they would have similar revelations, at least for the past century or so. An article in a 1912 Saddle and Show Horse Chronicle began with the statement that styles of 50 to 100 years earlier still prevailed for the most part, with a few changes for refinement and greater convenience. Among the writer s reflections on his current times: young women were becoming more slender and long-legged, he thought, smaller in shoulder, bust and hips. It seemed to him that they were evolving into beings more suited for riding than their foremothers had been. This meant that men s habits with all their advantages less impeding surplus fabric, for instance were easily adapted for female use and these were in great demand. Macy s, though, still stocked coats designed to minimize hips.

Ideally, one s habit was custom tailored, Chronicle said, made for you and you alone. If that was not possible, the fit should closely follow one s body but without being tight. A certain amount of slack was necessary to allow for easy movement of shoulders, waist and arms. Fabrics permitted and popular then, were mainly as unknown to us as polyester and spandex would have been to our great great grandparents. Khaki was included, but with covert cloth, white madras, crash, pongee, and cambric. The idea was growing that coat and pants should match. Tweed was falling out of favor as were most other elements that would distract the judges eyes from one s riding and one s horse. Another consideration was the confusing sight a ring full of riders made if individualism in attire ruled.

As to prices of the time, custom tailoring began at $150 per habit at Nardi s and could go to several times that. Off-the-rack three-piece habits (ready for wearing, to our ancestors) at Franklin Simon and Company ranged from $85 to $165. A few other prices on riding attire: Russian boots of black or tan calfskin were $11; women s breeches of black sateen, tan linen or white cambric were $2.95; a white linen shirt, $2.95. A divided skirt of black or navy serge was $6.95 and a safety sidesaddle skirt, English khaki or linen crash, was $5.95. It was interesting that no price distinctions were made for the varied sizes and fabrics in which a garment might be offered.

Still more changes in progress made a reader question the writer s first premise about the unchanging show scene. He pointed out that hair, no matter how it flattered its owner at other times, must be inconspicuous in the ring. There was no place for bangs, and long hair could be a hazard if it escaped its controls; it must be confined to a net or braided up and firmly wound around the head. Except for driving classes in which beautiful headgear was an essential part of the picture, hats must be plain and worn straight on, not coquettishly tilted to the side by women or rakishly tipped down over the eyes by men.

Apparently there had been a time when exhibitors wore corsages and considerable jewelry, for Chronicle s unnamed writer said sternly that both were for afternoon or evening. In the ring, only a boutonniere was proper, either white or red, and jewelry must not go beyond the functional tie bar or pn, cuff links and collar pin.

Though much of such discussion, in the various show magazines of the time was slanted toward women, men had their share of attention, much of it negative. A writer named Mortimer Seymour filled one of Chronicle s large, closely printed pages, with a diatribe against the automobile. Apparently, he said, men were using it as an excuse for appearing before women in clothing that defied all rules of decent apparel. They were often coatless and vestless, in soft collared shirts, their trousers bagged at the knees from hours of sitting in an automobile. Men might even retain a slight grubbiness from dealing with flat tires or cars stuck in mud. From our vantage point it looks as if men were declaring a joyous emancipation from the time-consuming, uncomfortable strictures of the past. Possibly they were even flaunting the badges of being automobile owners.

Their critic said they had no excuse for being ill groomed just because they traveled by automobile. Some models offered everything one needed to arrive at his destination immaculate. Shades could be lowered while a passenger had a shave and sponge bath from a collapsible table with supplies of hot and cold water. Thus as he was driven to an event, or in a convenient parking place near his destination, a gentleman traveler could change into the outfit his valet had stored for him in a locker under the car seat. There was no description of just how a suit had to be disposed to prevent crushing and creases and there was no hint as to the extra costs of these features in a car.

Even so, Seymour here gave us a truly valuable historical nugget, one of those fascinating bits that must have fallen through the cracks elsewhere; who among us ever read of such a thing before? Seymour concluded that the show ring might be the last outpost of firm standards of dress and he ended with the question of whether we should worry about what is ahead there.

An interesting note about corsets and riding habits:
Apparently the health hazards of wearing corsets had not surfaced in 1912; referenced repeatedly was the assumption that women needed the support of a steel filled garment. Franklin Simon and Company, which called itself a store of individual shops, offered one riding corset for $5. The size range was 18 to 30 inches. Their picture looks like the classic waspwaistmaker, but the description mentioned the comfort it offered because of short stays in front.

Belle Beach, by then an accepted authority on everything pertaining to horsewomen, said that it would be best if one could ride without a corset, for the sake of graceful flexibility. Still, those accustomed to the support should not give it up. They should seek the least constricting garments and should be sure never to give the rigid appearance of being tightly laced.

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