long skirt

This 1855 illustration from Punch magazine parodies the growing width of skirts both in mainstream fashion and in riding habits.

The “laws” of everyday social etiquette in Victoria times were detailed, sacrosanct for decades and rarely open to change. These “laws” covered everything from the kind of jewellery and dress a lady wore at certain times of the day, the dos and don’ts of social visits, calling cards, removal (or not) of a bonnet, and dining etiquette. In fact the list is endless and to err was the highest social faux pas and those who did step outside the boundaries were shunned by their social group. There were also rules regarding equestrian etiquette and attire and while horses were an essential form of transportation, they also provided men and ladies a way to see and be seen.

Riding a horse in public was not advised until a young lady had acquired a degree of expertise that would not cause her and her family embarrassment. A young man who decided to take a young lady out for a ride had to ensure that all the tack was in good order himself and these details were never left to the lowly grooms or stable boys. The chosen horse had to be suitable for milady’s riding ability and it was a man’s duty to help a lady to mount her horse: she gathered her skirts in her left hand, faced the horses head and put her right hand on the pommel while the man helped her spring into the saddle by placing his hands under the left foot. He then smoothed down her skirts which were cut longer to hang down gracefully on the side she mounted on, usually the left or near side.

As for pace, good manners prevailed and on no account could the man decide the speed. That was left up to the lady and it was very poor form for him to try to urge her horse into a trot or gallop when she was happiest at a sedate walk.

leg up

It was the gent`s job to help a lady into the saddle, check the tack and smooth her skirts.

If a young man had designs on a certain lady and happened to meet her out riding, then he had to dismount before speaking to her. The social niceties and etiquette also covered paying tolls which was the man’s job if a toll road was enroute and the man had to permit the lady to ride on the sunniest or shadiest side of the road which ever was her choice.

As far as equestrian apparel, It wasn’t until the second half of the 16th century that clothing specifically designed for sidesaddle riding was created although the designs still followed many of the fashions of the day.

The large and bulky dress cage crinolines would not have been worn out riding but the fashionable dress fullness would have been achieved with a starched petticoat. In photo studios however, a woman often wore her cage crinoline with her riding attire for a photograph. Because of the length of the skirts, there were frequent accidents when the long riding dresses got tangled in the sidesaddle horns when a fall happened. Around the late 19th century, the safety apron was created and this apron gave the effect of a skirt but it had no back to it so that the legs were free and in direct contact with the saddle.

Colonization and travel in different countries created a few new problems (but ultimately provided solutions) for ladies as many of the horses, donkeys, mules or camels they were given to ride had not been trained for sidesaddle riding. The solution lay in adopting versions of male riding pants for riding astride including the zouave or baggy trousers, part of the uniform adopted by the light infantry in the French Army, normally serving in French North Africa between 1831 and 1962. Women also took to wearing jodhpurs which originated in India from the ancient style of Indian trousers which were tight around the calf and baggy at the hips to help cool the body in hot weather.

Sir Pratap Singh, a younger son of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, helped to popularise jodhpurs in England after a style that he had perfected and tailored in India around 1890. He arrived in England for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and created quite a stir by winning many polo matches with his entire team. His jodhpurs were adapted by the British and shortened to mid calf to be worn with high riding boots. The true original full leg length jodhpurs are also still in use today and are worn with short paddock boots with a form fitting leg design.

Hats were also an essential part of Victorian riding attire and followed the fashions of the day no matter how impractical. In 1858 hats with ear rosettes, ostrich feathers and long ties were popular while taller top hats with see though veils were worn for hunting but of course afforded no protection in a fall. Flat porkpie hats and curved flat hats, the ultimate in fashionable head gear, were considered very trendy and racy in an era when many women still wore larger bonnets.

To ensure that no lady made a fool of herself or family, there were lengthy attire guidelines for ladies going riding and this list included undergarments, outdoor or covert coats, hats, stockings and habit. Even footwear was discussed and in keeping with that Victorian horror of viewing a female foot or leg one publication warned that: “The stiff boot is better than the legging, as it does not show the shape of the leg.”