Some 20th century Ladies’ Riding Habits

To redeem myself from my disgraceful panning of the only female hunt coat at the consignment shop, I’m writing today about a trio of women’s riding jackets that I had the privilege of examining recently.

The first comes from the collection of my friend Heidi Opdyke who is an avid side saddle enthusiast and even hunts side saddle. She lent me two of her vintage side saddle habits to examine and pattern.

The first one is a navy blue habit made by H. Huntsman and Sons of London for Mrs. D. Bourne in September 1949.

The jacket is made from a heavy wool that appears to be knit. It is very bulky. There are three buttons closing the front and it is cut away over the abdomen. In hunt costume, the yellow waistcoat would show here. The buttons on the cuffs show the letter “SVH” for Spring Valley Hounds, the hunt club in New Jersey to which Heidi belonged before she moved. The center front buttons are plain. The collar is faced with maroon velvet, the colour of Spring Valley Hounds.

The jacket has a single dart that travels vertically from the lower edge to the bust. It gives the impression of being a princess seam but it does not reach the shoulder. A small er dart (about 8” long) shapes the side about halfway up.

The back is made in four pieces wit princess seams disappearing into the armscye. The jacket has two back side vents but no center back vent as on the men’s. This gives a nicer line on a lady sitting aside and not astride where the center back vent makes sense.

The interior is lined with satin only in the upper part of the jacket. The revers are faced with the outer material and there is one pocket on the inner left. Buttons along the high waistline of the jacket indicate where the skirt was secured to the jacket so a gap between skirt and jacket would not show while riding.

The skirt is of a form many of you will find strange and unfamiliar. This is the time period of apron riding skirts, skirts that cover the legs while a lady is seated on her side saddle but that look odd and crooked when walking. Below is a photo of the skirt laid flat, interior facing up.

Let me walk you through what you’re seeing. The faced curved bit at the upper right is the waist. The square corner next to it on the right is the piece that wraps around your backside. The faced bit on the upper left is the part that hangs down your left side. The double facing that’s hanging off the table center bottom goes along your right leg while seated. Just off the photo to the bottom is an elastic strap that goes around your foot to keep the skirt from flapping up while riding. Weird right?

Let’s look at it on a dress form and see if it makes more sense. The following photos have been enhanced so you can see the contours of the fabric more clearly.
On the left is the skirt as seen from the left side as worn when on the horse. On the right is the skirt as seen from the left side as worn when on the ground. The panel is brought around the back and fastened on the left. The photo below right shows how the skirt looks from behind when buttoned up. The photo below left shows it from the front when worn unbuttoned. You can clearly see the shape engineered for the right knee in this photo. The right knee is the knee that is bent around the pommel horn when riding aside. The elastic strap that fits around the boot to keep the skirt from flopping around can also be seen in this photo.

The second riding habit Miss Heidi allowed me to examine is this Busvine jacket dating to the 1930s. It was also made in England, but there is no tailor’s tag extant.

Messrs. Busvine of Brook Street, London, were ladies’ tailors of great renown in the late 19th century. They hold a numb of patents for ladies’ riding skirts. One, dated 14 August, 1884, details the way in which a circular portion of the skirt was to be removed so that it would not catch on the pommel if the rider were thrown. Below this circular cut, the skirt was to be closed with a weak elastic material or an adhesive gelatine. He also suggests lacing through weak eyelets. The idea was that the material would tearaway if the skirt became caught.

In January of 1885, he applied for a further patent which incorporated a “knee sleeve” and a “shoe” sewn into the interior of the skirt. The knee sleeve was like a buttoned gaiter an the shoe was a triangular piece with a firm sole. The idea was that, if the skirt was fastened to he wearer more securely, the weight of the falling rider would pull it awa from the saddle and the rider would not be dragged.

The jacket below is of a date much later than Busvine’s inventions and probably had a skirt similar to the apron skirt of the Huntsman habit described above.

This jacket flares far more in the skirts than the previous example. We can see this style difference in photos of equestriennes from the 1930s. The front buttons with three vertically-placed buttons, but there is no cutaway beneath them. The same dart arrangement as on the Huntsman jacket is present here: a single vertical dart that looks like a princess seam reaches from the hem to the bustline. Again, the back is cut in four pieces with a princess seam disappearing into the armscye. The back vent, however, is at the center back. A single diagonal slash welted pocket is present each side of the fronts. There are no hunt colours or club buttons on this jacket.

The exterior of the jacket is a lovely deep navy wool twill. The lining is off white satin. The revers and skirts are face with the outer material and he whole jacket is in very good condition.

The last riding habit I’ll write about today is my own. I purchased this deep navy riding jacket at a reenactors’ market in England four or five yeas ago purely because I liked its shape and it fit me. At the time I was told it was probably Edwardian (circa 1901-1909).

The jacket is constructed from a heavily-milled, tightly-woven wool melton that is cut and not hemmed at the front, revers, and collar edges. Two rows of stitching edge the fronts, revers and collar of the jacket. Unlike the previous two examples, it is cut in eight pieces – four front and four back – with princess seams travelling over the shoulder (not into the armhole) and no darts. Also unlike the previous examples, it is fully lined with navy satin and not just lined to the shoulder blades and faced below. The lining carries two welted slash pockets below the breast level but there is no tag in either. A tailor’s tag is evidenced by thin strip of fabric at the back of the neck and may say “Paris” but there are too many thread missing from the tailor’s name is to read. There is a small square of lining missing from the area under the center back vent, but otherwise the jacket is in pristine condition. The weight and stiffness of the wool produces an elegant drape to the skirts and it is a dream to wear.

Penny Housden, author of Riding Out in Style and proprietress of Side Saddle Lady, kindly gave me her assessment of my jacket:
“I think you’re right about the 1910s. The jacket looks a bit shorter and slightly less flared than the habit jackets of the turn of the century (and more removed from the design of the late 1890s), but still has a similar styling and cut. I don’t think it’s long or slimline enough for after the First World War, so the 1910s seems about correct. The three-button fastening (straight or diagonal) was particularly popular from c.1907 onwards.”

Next on my Equestrian Fashion agenda is a trip to see Sue Tobin of Side Saddle Heaven and examine her wonderful collection of side saddle habits. Stay tuned!

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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.

2 Comments

  1. Bronwyn

    I live in Chester County PA, horse country. How wonderful to read your information. While reading the niovel
    The American Heiress, in which the heroine is being sewed into a chamois undergarment that will ensure a smooth fit of her Busline coat, I Googled Busline and found YOU. I wonder if you could find such a chamois garment.

  2. Lisa Friel

    What a fun read. My only comment is the bottom is it more correct to call it an “apron”… (not a skirt)…All my Busvine’s have a diagonal cut on bottom… have never seen one like what you have pictured. Wondered if it doesn’t have a maker tag if it isn’t a Williams & Cleaver. You may want to reference the book GONE AWAY WITH THE WINDMILLS to look at photos of Busvine habits. Viola Windmill was known as the first lady of foxhunting and owned the largest collection of carriages in America. She only wore Busvine’s and is pictured with Wallis Simpson in at least one of the photos. Up until recently I owned one of the habits but have since sold it to a collector.

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