A History of Ladies’ Riding Jackets

Origins
Throughout history women have worn feminized versions of men’s fashionable dress. A woman’s doublet dating to 1585 and housed in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg, Germany stands in testament to this. For years the doublet was listed as that of a youth, until it was noted that it was missing eyelets for which to attach breeches, an essential element in men’s clothing at this time. A survey of period portraiture revealed many doublets of this type on women, one in a German Stammbuch almost identical to the museum specimen. So the doublet was reclassified as a woman’s.

And for just as long, men have been complaining about it. As early as the reign of Elizabeth I, Philip Stubbes rants about the trend in his Anatomie of Abuses in 1583 saying “and thought this be a kind of attire appropriate only to man, yet they blush not to wear it.”

Probably the earliest surviving example of a lady’s riding outfit is also in the collection of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg. It is a red satin doublet decorated with vertical and diagonal bands of yellow and blue strips of embroidery and silk braid. The doublet dates to 1625-30. In all aspects it is like a fashionable man’s doublet of the time period but, again, missing the eyeleted band for hooking the breeches to the doublet and the stiffened belly piece common in men’s doublets of this date is not in evidence in this specimen.

In the 1670s, women’s Hunting Outfits had come to mean a straight-fronted Justacorps, decorated like a man’s but shaped to the woman’s figure and worn with stays and a petticote, often trained and displayed over the back of the horse while mounted. A high-necked shirt, cravat, gloves, shoulder knots of ribbon, sash and stick completed the ensemble. Despite the purported purpose of the outfit, it was not at all simple and utilitarian. Justacorps could be made of fine silk brocade with petticotes to match. Or contrasting petticotes could be worn, sometimes finished at the lower edge with gold fringe. As with men’s Justacorps of the time, no expense was spared on decoration and bands of gold braid often adorned pockets, front edges, hems, seams, and buttonholes. The cuff turnbacks were lined with gold brocade or heavily embroidered silk and whole waistcoats were made of gold and silver brocade. As with gentlemen’s coats of the time, buttons were decorative rather than functional (the coat normally being held closed by the sash) and wrapped with gold threads and other passementerie treatments.

Informal wigs were worn to make the hair appear natural and flowing. However, the shape of the hair indicates men’s wigs worn by women rather than women simply wearing their hair loose. In the early years of the 18th century, the wigs were restrained in queues (pigtails) at the nape of the neck as were men’s at the same time. Masks were often worn to protect the skin from the tanning effects of the sun.

This style of Riding Outfit persisted through the early decades of the 18th century. By the 1730s, the wearing of hoops necessitated a waist seam to be added to the jacket and the silhouette changed dramatically. The skirts of the Riding Jacket became shorter and they were much wider than the male version. In the 1770s, like the men’s frock coats of the time, the lady’s riding jacket was rarely worn closed, fastened instead by a hook over the upper chest. Also following men’s fashion, the cuffs were small and revers were buttoned back on either side of the front opening. The coordinating waistcoat filled in the open space between the edges of the jacket.he Riding Jacket aped the curve of the men’s frock coat and was fastened by a single hook. The buttons and revers became purely decorative. At this time it was the style among Englishwomen to wear riding jackets in the colours of their husband’s regiments. Much criticism was leaped upon women for following male fashion and ignoring their feminine attributes, but the riding outfits in the 18th century were charming.

Riding Outfits at the end of the century
When the French Revolution changed fashion, waistlines rose and shaping undergarments were discarded. Although riding habits in the early 19th century were still styled along masculine lines, the high “Empire” waist and feminine details of the jacket were preserved. Sleeve caps were softly pleated into the armscye, men’s “tails” were shortened to an attractive back peplum and darts were added at the front to enhance the bust. Although stays were mostly done away with, there is no reason to believe that women stopped wearing them for riding. Habit shirts were worn beneath the jackets and may have given a modicum of support as well.

Trains were de rigeur and skirts were looped up for walking by means of ties and tabs inside the skirts. The hoops of the previous century were entirely discarded and the turn-of-the-century riding habit echoed the long, columnal lines in fashion.

According to tailor’s manuals of the time, riding habits consisted of jacket and petticote. An example in the Salibury Museum, however, instead of a petticote has skirts attached to a small bodice. This bodice consists of a back and shoulder straps that button to a short front piece that rises no higher than the underside of the bust. It fits smoothly around the bust by means of a small gusset where the shoulder strap turns into the waistband. A bustle pad is attached to the inside back of this bodice, helping to plump out the back pleats of the skirts under the jacket peplum. The effect is one of high-waisted overalls. The bodice is entirely covered by the double-breasted jacket. The jacket is finished with turnback cuffs and a pad-stitched collar like those on men’s coats of the time.

Regency and Victorian Riding Habits
From the beginning of the 19th century, riding costume still followed masculine and often military lines in the jacket, often taking the form of buttons in single or double rows down the front. After the American Civil War, a marked change to non-military styles was evident in ladies’ riding jackets. In the 1870s and 1880s riding bodices began to resemble ladies’ daywear bodices with the only difference being that a small collar and revers (lapels), presumably a throwback to the previous trend imitation of menswear.

Riding Outfits in the 20th century
After Victoria’s death in 1901, a new age of gaiety was inaugurated along with Edward VII. This first decade of the 20th century came to be known as “The Golden Age”. This is also the period in which women in England and America became vocal about their right to vote. So it is not surprising that the masculine element returned to riding costume. Men’s riding dress was comprised of a simple short jacket called a “sack” because of its squarish and untailored appearance. This became the blazer or man’s suit coat with which we are all familiar today. With the addition of darts, this coat style was trim and flattering to the female figure, so it was quickly adopted by equestriennes and non-sporting women alike. Riding jackets today still echo this silhouette.

In the 1910s, ladies’ riding jackets lengthened in response to the columnar fashionable silhouette prevalent in that decade. At right we can see a typical riding jacket of the Great War period whose hem reaches to the mid-thigh. This length of jacket — in single- or double-breasted versions, sometimes with asymmetrical button closures — would dominate equestrienne-wear well into the 1920s.

When riding, the square fronts of the sack jacket rubbed against the pommel of the saddle, damaging the coat over time. The solution was to create a jacket that was cut away in front so that it didn’t rub against the saddle. And the cutaway frock coat was born. With the addition of darts, this coat style was trim and flattering to the female figure, so it was quickly adopted by equestriennes and nonsporting women alike. Riding jackets today still echo this silhouette.

Next time… A History of Ladies’ Riding Breeches

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© 2011 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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