Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Horsing Around, Part II: Good Habits

Last week we discussed horses and carriages and guys driving too fast (and probably not asking directions). This time, I’d like to talk about the other side of horsing around: riding.

As you might have guessed from looking at the clothes, there weren't many forms of physical activity or exercise that women and girls in the 1800s could do and still be thought proper--so if you’ve always hated gym, you were probably born in the wrong century. One of the few (I’ll talk about the others in a future post) was riding.

Again, we’re speaking relatively here. Grooms and stablehands did all the horse care and saddling and so on, which is half of what makes riding such great exercise. All an upper class nineteenth century girl had to do was amble down to the stables and climb aboard…after she’d changed into the proper costume, of course. You couldn’t wear something frothy made of silk and lace when you were about to gallop around the muddy countryside on horseback, so you wore a riding habit.

A riding habit was generally made of a sturdy fabric like wool broadcloth, trimmed maybe with little luxurious touches like a velvet collar or a fine linen stock (high neckcloth, like a man’s cravat). It generally consisted of a skirt and coat, cut very form-fitting. A hat, often copied from a man’s style but with a veil added in, and gloves completed the costume. Pantaloons were worn underneath it for modesty’s sake in case (horrors!) you fell off, and the skirt was cut with extra fabric so it draped nicely when you were settled into your sidesaddle.

Yes, sidesaddle. Women in polite society did not ride astride. Sidesaddles have a sort of crook that you hook one leg over while the other has a stirrup. It sounds more precarious than it actually is, and many, many women were quite dashing riders.

Horseback riding was not just for country life. A favorite activity for elegant young women during the London Season was riding in Hyde Park, either on the sandy path known as “Rotten Row” or on the Ladies’ Mile. A morning ride was a fabulous way to see and be seen (remember, you were wearing that very handsome and figure-revealing habit), gossip with friends and flirt with the boys, and make plans for afternoon shopping or evening partying. Horsing around, indeed!

1 comment:

SarahP said...

Wow, that's a lot of fabric in those dresses, from the looks of the pictures.