For many, when the word ‘habit’ is used in the clothing sense, images of nuns and monks and even the film Sister Act may float through people’s minds! However the word actually has deep equestrian roots. It was during the late 17th century when an item of clothing, specifically designed for riding side saddle called a ‘habit’ was born, that would change the equestrian fashion world forever.
During the Victorian era (and well overdue we think at Style Reins), there was a rise in the number of women taking up horse riding, so tailors and dressmakers started to specialize in making sidesaddle habits with the items always following the fashion trends of the mainstream clothing at the time.
In fact, the very first habits followed the fashion of men’s clothing, with many adopting the styles of military uniforms. As riding was considered a refined pastime and quite an art form, elaborate trimmings and materials would be used that were actually heavily influenced by the French court. Into the eighteenth century, the designs progressed with the English country hunting gentleman becoming a large inspiration, therefore habits became plainer cut and more functional.
Never to stay still for long, fashion trends seemed to evolve and alter quicker than the passengers on a London tube; and it was around 1785 when the riding coat was born, with its close-fitting bodice and double or triple cape-collar accompanied by a skirt with buttons. At the end of the century, styles transformed again and by the early nineteenth century a habit that had less volume became fashionable, with a high waistline and often a pleated back to the jacket, made from materials such as fine wool for the summer.
This style lasted through the Regency period but began changing dramatically after the 1820s, when skirts became fuller again and now they came with puffed sleeves. By the 1830s, the large, dropped-shoulder ‘gigot’ sleeves were proving popular. These were fairly short-lived, but the bulbous skirts remained throughout the mid-nineteenth century accompanied by jackets with large peplums.
Equestriennes’ such as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, who was tall, slim and elegant and who was actually, would you believe it, sewn into her riding costume every morning she hunted, saw the fashions change again to the slim line darker-coloured habits of the 1880s, with high-buttoned bodices and jacket tails and trousers rather than petticoats.
Health and safety presiding over fashion was not given even a sideward glance until 1875, when the first ‘safety skirt’ was invented to help prevent the terrible accidents that came from women falling off, being caught by their skirts and dragged by their horses.
Following this it was the design by Alice Hayes, at the turn of the nineteenth century, which captured the fashion attention, with the unbuttoning of the length of skirt, gradually evolving into the practical open-sided apron of the 1930s ‘astride’ riding, accompanied by a cutaway jacket. A design, which although has been modified, is still used today embodying the elegance of modern sidesaddle equestrianism of the twenty-first century.
In the early 20th century it became socially acceptable for women to ride astride while wearing split skirts or breeches, and the sidesaddle began to fall out of fashion. The rise of women’s suffrage also played a role as, to the Suffragettes, riding sidesaddle was a symbol of male domination, and so by 1930 riding astride had become totally acceptable and the preferred method of riding for women.
However, during the last few years there has been a revival in the art of riding sidesaddle. You could call it the ‘Lady Mary’ effect: the fictional heroine of Downton Abbey hunts sidesaddle, and seems to have sparked a new interest amongst women riders. Groups such as the ‘Flying Foxes’ and ‘A Bit on the Side’ can be seen riding at displays around the country.
The fashion world has responded to this with the likes of Christian Dior, introducing into the Dior Couture Shows in 2010, top hats, veils, and flawless riding habits; with incredible ball gowns covered and draped in dozens of yards of duchesse satin.
It was in fact a research trip to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, which gave Dior’s Head Designer, John Galliano, the inspiration to introduce riding habits into their couture collection. He had been watching a fitting taking place, and on the wall behind was a picture of a young woman riding sidesaddle and that was all that was needed!
That precise moment provided Galliano with the inspiration to create pieces from the nip-waisted Dior jackets with full riding skirts, to the “Naughty Nineties” pastel cocktail dresses and ball gowns of opulence. By the time the last model came out onto the catwalk at the Dior Couture Show, wearing a rose-tinted bustier with ice-blue petaled skirts dusted with crystal, you could apparently hear the gasps of delight from their front-row clients.
However despite influencing the likes of Dior in haute couture, sourcing an expertly tailored habit for riding, at an affordable price was another matter entirely and very rare. So the advent of companies that could make sidesaddle clothing accessible for all, without the compromises of style or quality, were slowly born; Alexander James of Pendlebury, Robertson and Williams, and Showtime Supplies.
So next time someone mentions that word habit, rather than nuns and Whoopi Goldberg springing straight into the mind, perhaps riding sidesaddle and all that accompanies will now be the replacement. For the habit, although born in the 16th Century and developed through time is never forgotten.