Riding Habits of the 19th Century

Equestrian Portrait of Mademoiselle Croizette by Carolus-Duran, 1876.
Equestrian Portrait of Mademoiselle Croizette by Carolus-Duran, 1876.

Riding habits of the 19th century were both fashionable and functional.  They were designed to flatter the figure, camouflage the dirt, and withstand the physical rigors of horseback riding.  These basic, practical considerations did not change a great deal from season to season.  As a result, the favored fabrics, cuts, and colors of riding habits at the end of the century were, in general, not hugely dissimilar from those at the beginning.  As an 1842 issue of The Lady’s Companion states:

 “While carriage and walking-dresses are continually changing in fashion, there occurs but little or no variation in the style of riding habits.”

This does not mean that every riding habit was identical.  There were, in fact, significant changes in the placing of the waistline over the century, as well as in the preferred styles for buttons, trims, and hats.  In 1806, La Belle Assemblée decreed that, for the summer, a bonnet with the peak made of straw and the crown made of white silk was “always worn by ladies who indulged in the pleasure of horseback riding.”  As for the rest of the riding costume:

“Nothing is more fashionable for riding on horseback than an ash-coloured habit.  Green, however, is somewhat prevalent; the buttons are either worked or covered with the same as the habit.”

An 1812 edition of The Edinburgh Annual Register describes an elegant habit made of blue cloth and trimmed down each side of the front and on the hips with Spanish Buttons.  A “small woodland hat, whose colour corresponds to the dress,” buff gloves, and half-boots (of either buff jean or leather) complete the picture.

Emma Powles on her Grey Hunter accompanied by her Spaniel in a River Landscape by Jaques-Laurent Agasse , 1767-1849.
Emma Powles on her Grey Hunter accompanied by her Spaniel in a River Landscape
by Jaques-Laurent Agasse , 1767-1849.

The coat, vest, and skirts that comprised the typical riding habit were a striking combination.  They were also a peculiarly masculine one.  So much so that many women preferred to have their riding habits cut by a tailor instead of by the modiste or seamstress who made their gowns.  Elegance and simplicity reigned supreme and any efforts to decorate the riding habit with an excess of feathers or a tasteless display of trim was frowned upon by the fashion magazines.  An excerpt from the 1821 issue of The Dublin Inquisitor says it best:

“Blue riding habit and ostrich feathers! – In the name of taste and fashion, and all that you used to admire, how are you so much perverted?”

The years between 1820 and 1830 saw what one magazine describes as the “ugliest fashions” in riding habits.  Bearing a resemblance to women’s ordinary dress, the habits of that period consisted of long, gathered garments, “monstrous stove pipe” hats, and gauze veils which “fell loosely to the waist in front.”  This was a period of transition into the elegant, more masculine riding habits of the middle and end of the century.  As an article in the 1889 issue of The Women’s World states:

“Here we have the germ from which, in the evolution of fashion, has been developed the completely appropriate costume of today.”  

General Krieg of Hochfelden and his wife on horseback by Marie Ellenrieder, 1832.
General Krieg of Hochfelden and his wife on horseback by Marie Ellenrieder, 1832.

According to The Lady’s Companion, styles in riding habits from the 1830s to the 1840s underwent no material change.  In both decades, the riding habit could be worn “buttoned up to the throat,” “left half open at the chest,” or “thrown entirely open to display a smart and handsome vest.”  Skirts were long, reaching well below the feet.  And as for the color:

“The color of the habit, to be in good taste, should never be light.  A clear blue (royal blue) has always been, and will probably continue to be the favorite color.  It is a well-known fact that George II caused the naval uniform to be changed from scarlet to blue, in consequence of his majesty having admired a splendid blue riding habit, worn by the Duchess of Bedford.”

The color green and the color purple were also worn, but as the magazine declares “neither looks so well as blue.”  This does not stop the beautiful Blanche Ingram from donning a purple riding habit in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre.  As Brontë writes:

“Her purple riding-habit almost swept the ground, her veil streamed long on the breeze; mingling with its transparent folds, and gleaming through them, shone rich raven ringlets.”

There were, of course, exceptions to the rule.  The Duchess of Rutland, for example, was fond of a sky blue habit with silver buttons, a white hat, and a very high-shirt color.  However, as The Lady’s Companion explains, “her grace was gifted with personal attractions that might excuse any eccentricity.”  In other words, a singularly beautiful lady might be permitted to stray from the preferred colors in riding habits, but for an average mortal, eccentricity was generally discouraged.

Portrait of a Woman as an Amazon, with their Greyhound by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, 1839.
Portrait of a Woman as an Amazon, with their Greyhound by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, 1839.

No matter the color, in the mid-century, the collar of the riding habit must be velvet.  The cuffs were often velvet as well.  The vest was usually buff or light blue and “small shirt-collars with some showy color” were considered to be more becoming than even the finest lace.  As for the buttons, The Lady’s Companion states:

“Purple and green habits should be trimmed with stuff buttons; but blue habits should always be ornamented with small gilt buttons, very rich in luster, perfectly plain on the surface, and set closely together in the rows.  These buttons are always worn on the vest, when the bodice is thrown open.”

As a general principle, the habit must have a close bodice, tight sleeves, and a long skirt.  The only variations were in the style of the bodice.  According to The Lady’s Companion, there are three distinct bodice styles:

“First, the military form, (buttoned up to the neck); second, the half-chest, or jacket form; third, the open form with a vest underneath.”

Portrait of Russian actress Vera Samoylova by Eugène Pluchart, 1840.
Portrait of Russian actress Vera Samoylova by Eugène Pluchart, 1840.

Hats were expected to be in good taste.  A neat cap of velvet or cloth equipped with a veil was preferable to a Leghorn or cottage bonnet (which might prove troublesome by flapping about in a high wind).  Gloves were purely practical items, with worsted gloves being superior to those made of kid.  Kid gloves were known to chafe on the reins.

From the date of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne to the mid-1860s, The Women’s World magazine states that “low crowned hats with flowing plumes seem to have been almost universally worn.”  Otherwise, the tight bodice and “full, floating habit-skirt” had not altered at all from the style of habit popular in the 1840s.

Meanwhile, elegance and simplicity were still the last word in riding habits well into the 1880s, with an 1887 equestrian manual stating:

“A riding habit should be distinguished by its perfect simplicity.  All attempts at display, such as feathers, ribbons, glaring gilt buttons, and sparkling jet, should be carefully avoided, and the dress should be noticeable only for the fineness of its material and the elegance of its fit.”

By the end of the century, solid, plain cloth riding habits had given way to colored waistcoats and a variety of hats ranging from “the round felt and the soft wide-awake to the jaunty little sailor hat for summer mornings.”  As The Women’s World magazine reports:

“Everything, indeed, tends to a rational form of riding-dress.  Habits are not so short as they were last year, neither is it considered necessary to exhibit an ‘hour-glass’ waist in the saddle, while the form of head-covering is left widely to the fair rider’s taste.”  

The drift toward greater functionality and freedom of personal expression in riding habits was reflective of changing public views, not just of women, but of exercise and athletics.  Accomplished equestriennes were beginning to be appreciated as much for their skill in the saddle as for the cut of their coat.  Of course, an elegant riding habit must always be admired, but as the 19th century drew to a close, no longer could it be said of the female equestrian that “graceful as may be the style of her riding, there is little that is interesting in her appearance unless she is properly attired.”

Scene Dexposition de la Maison Lavigne, 1867.
Scene Dexposition de la Maison Lavigne, 1867.
Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

 Sources

Brontë, Charlotte.  Jane Eyre.  Ed. Richard Dunn.  Norton Critical Editions.  3rd ed.  New York: Norton, 2000.

“Fashions for Ladies.”  Edinburgh Annual Register.  Vol. V. Part 2.  Edinburgh: John Ballantyne, 1812.

Fletcher, J. A.  “Equestrian Attire.”  The Columbian Lady’s and Gentlemen’s Magazine.  New York: Israel Post, 1846.

“Fragments of the Correspondence of a Lover.”  The Dublin Inquisitor.  Vol. 1-2.  Dublin: C. P. Archer, 1821.

Karr, Elizabeth.  The American Horsewoman.  Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1884.

La Belle Assemblée. Vol. 1. London: J. Bell, 1806.

La Belle Assemblée. Vol. 5. London: J. Bell, 1812.

“Lady Equestrians.”  The Lady’s Companion.  Vol. XVII.  New York: William Snowden, 1842.

Dixon, Ella Hepworth.  “Women on Horseback.”  The Woman’s World.  London: Cassell and Co., 1889.


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31 Comments on "Riding Habits of the 19th Century"

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Sarah Waldock
Guest
The length of the skirt of the riding habit is such as to be able to engender plot bunnies; it was much longer than a normal skirt, with a train, and walking elegantly whilst holding this up was something of an art. This was to ensure that all modesty was preserved whilst riding, but was a little awkward when walking to the horse. A heroine tripping over her train is provided with the impediment of embarrassment; or a gentleman who stands on it might either prove to be the hero, who spends the rest of the book making up for… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

All great ideas, Sarah! The skirts really sacrificed safety for modesty. There are even incidents of horses catching a hoof in the skirt when cantering or galloping. As if life wasn’t difficult enough for 19th century women and animals!

Sarah Waldock
Guest
I hadn’t heard of that, very dangerous! The side-saddle may have originated in Italy somewhere in the 15th century; before that women either rode astride, usually merchant’s wives and daughters, or for the hunt, as the previous side saddle was literally sideways; you sat on it with your feet on a platform facing sideways, unable to control the horse, and a lady had to be led. the side saddle with which we are familiar was considered rather daring, and it may or may not have been invented to show off the attractive legs of a courtesan, according to which legend… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Interesting! Riding side-saddle seems so counter intuitive as well as profoundly unsafe in so many ways. I had always wondered if it was some barbaric invention for protecting a gently bred lady’s virtue, but your explanation makes sense too.

Angelyn
Guest

“As if life wasn’t difficult enough for 19th century women and animals!”

I know–right?

Great post, Mimi!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks Angelyn! Glad you liked it :)

Nia
Guest

Some men would ride bareback side saddle on large draught horses, such as shires, because riding astride is a lot like doing the splits.. And unless you have a divided riding skirt, then your dress ends up being hoiked up around your waist if you try riding astride.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Good point about draft horses, Nia. And you’re right, riding astride in a skirt is a delicate business!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

You ride a draft horse on its rump and with one leg tucked partly under you and the other dangling one side. it is almost a side saddle but more like riding an overstuffed chair sidesaddle…

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Their broad backs have always reminding me of sitting on a comfy sofa!

Sarah M. Fredericks
Guest

Dear Mimi,
Thank you for such an interesting post on ladies’ 19th century habits. I wonder if the lady equestrians found the close bodices and tight sleeves very constricting and hot to wear, especially while galloping through hills and dales following a breathless fox. As for my choice of colour…I would have to choose forest green.
To your knowledge, did all the female riders ride side saddle?
Warmest regards
Sarah
🍀CopleyClassics.com📚

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks, Sarah! Glad you liked it. The coats are not terribly different from riding coats one might wear when competing at a horse show today. They can be warm, but if the cut is good and they fit well, then riding in them is not constricting. There are always some examples in both history & literature of women riding astride. However, it was not the norm and, generally, not considered to be very ladylike!

Jenny Haddon
Guest
That is absolutely fascinating. Riding side saddle must have been agony for any length of time – being in a twisted position from the waist down and having to exert considerable force from your shoulders and arms. And if you fell off, your modesty might be protected but you’d be quite likely to break a limb tumbling and tripping in your long skirt. That’s if it didn’t tangle with your stirrups and drag you along after the horse. Frightful to think of. Still, I think the jackets themselves must have been quite comfortable, since the style has survived so long… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Glad you enjoyed it, Jenny! You’re right, riding coats have changed very little in the last 200+. I have several fitted black ones which even have silver buttons and, if I added a skirt, would not be too different from many of the 19th century paintings. Black beaver hats are still common as well, especially in the dressage show ring. Thanks for the links! I almost mentioned Sophy’s riding habit in the article. One of my favorite descriptions of a habit in literature :)

Jann @ AustinDetails.me
Guest

Fun to look at. Great collection of art and details! But riding astride in jodhpurs is best.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks, Jann. I totally agree. Here in California (at least in the dressage discipline) we call them breeches, but I cannot imagine riding in anything else!

Vickie
Guest

Mimi – I love this! In a world where women were so restricted in almost everything they could do here was an opportunity to look smart and have fun! There is nothing more exhilarating than a gallop!
Thank you
Vickie

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks, Vickie :) I completely agree. There is nothing quite like being on the back of a horse – though I far prefer wearing breeches and riding astride!

Stephen Barker
Guest
A couple of points, The Empress Elizabeth of Austria who hunted in the shires in the Nineteenth Century was reputedly stitched into her riding habit so as to achieve a perfect fit. In her memoirs entitled ‘Chit Chat’ Lady Augusta Fane attributes the introduction of the Top Hat for ladies in the hunting field to the celebrated courtesan ‘Skittles’ who was a noted horsewoman and leader of fashion. As well as foxhunting she rode in Hyde Park and was one of the class of women known as ‘Pretty Little Horsebreakers’ who were paid to show off horses, fashions and themselves.… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Great facts, Stephen. Thanks for the comment. My articles of this sort are generally an overview (as I try not to exceed 2000 words!) and inevitably there are some anecdotes that get missed. Though, I do mention the ‘Pretty Little Horsebreakers’ in one of my articles on Landseer paintings!

Maggi Andersen
Guest

Thanks for the wonderful post, Mimi! I’m writing about a habit and fell upon it with delight! Unfortunately my poor heroine will be wearing one of the horrors of 1823!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Maggi :) Oh dear, 1823! I am sure there must be a way to make the habits of those years sound prettier than they were.

woostersauce2014
Guest

Many thanks for a fascinating article about riding habits and how ostensibly the basic style never changed, in reality there were subtle differences as a nod to the fashions of a particular decade.

That said it is not surprising that riding side saddle has pretty much gone in the way of the dodo (although I am aware that a few women continue to ride side saddle). It looks very unnatural and uncomfortable and most of all a health and safety risk!!!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thank you for commenting. Glad you enjoyed the post:) There are still side-saddle classes at some specialty horse shows and the like, but you’re right. In general, riding side-saddle has fallen from favor and it’s not hard to see why!

woostersauce2014
Guest

I did and have learned a lot from the comments too

Carol Hedges
Guest

In the mid Victorian period, courtesans who rode on a Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park were known as ‘The Pretty Horsebreakers’. Several of them were notorious for wearing nothing under their tight fitting riding habits…thus leaving ”nothing” to the imagination!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Exactly right! 19th Century animal painter Edwin Henry Landseer did a very famous painting called “The Shrew Tamed” in which he depicted Catherine Walters, a courtesan and one of the “Pretty Horsebreakers.” I wrote about it in my article on Landseer here: http://www.mimimatthews.com/2015/04/17/edwin-henry-landseer-19th-century-britains-foremost-animal-painter/

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knotrune
Guest
Sorry to be replying to such an old post, but as I used to ride side saddle I feel I can shed some light. It is actually very comfortable and safe! The body is not supposed to be askew, just the one leg which crosses the horse’s body, apart from that, you have to sit just as square as riding astride, and keep the opposite shoulder well back (I mean if you have your right leg over to the left, your right shoulder is well back, this is the way most side saddle riders ride these days, but when it… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for such an informative comment! It’s good to know that riding sidesaddle was not quite as hazardous for those 19th century ladies as it may look to us today.

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