18th Century Riding Habits

Lady Worsley
Lady Seymour Worsley, courtesy of Harewood House.

Possibly one of the most iconic images of a woman of the Georgian era wearing a riding habit has to be that of Lady Seymour Worsley. So, with that in mind we thought we would take a look at this fashion statement outfit. We know from Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s receipts that she purchased her riding habits from the tailor to the Prince of Wales, one Louis Bazalgette, as did Mrs Fitzherbert, and it is more than likely that Lady Worsley did too.

The outfit would consist of a tailored jacket or redingote, possibly one of the most glamorous garments a woman could wear, so much so that even today fashion designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier use it for inspiration.

with long skirt, tailored shirt or chemisette, a hat, low heel boots, glove and a necktie or stock, based on the male coat and waistcoat of the day.  Needless to say though the breeches would have been totally unacceptable. As you can see in the portrait though of Lady W, she was clearly sporting a very elegant pair of shoes, hardly suitable for riding in.

Jane, Duchess of Gordon, née Maxwell, standing three-quarter-length, portrayed in a green riding habit, wearing only one glove on her right hand. By Daniel Gardner c.1775.

We came across this interesting letter about the wearing of riding habits in ‘The Ladies Complete Letter-writer – a collection of letters written by ladies’ of 1763 – the writer was clearly not a fan of this type of attire!

Censure of the Ladies Riding-Habits

Madam,

I was lately, in a beautiful evening, admiring the serenity of the sky, the lively colours of the fields, and the variety of the landscape everywhere around me, a little party of horsemen passing the road almost close to me, arrested my attention, and a fair youth, seemingly dressed up by some description in romance. His hair, well curled and powdered, hung to a considerable length on his shoulders, and was wantonly tied, as if by the hands of his mistress, in a scarlet ribbon, which played like a streamer behind him. He had a coat and waistcoat of blue camblet, trimmed and embroidered with silver; a cravat of the finest lace; and wore in a smart cock, a little beaver hat, edged with silver, and made more sprightly by a feather.

Mrs John Montresor by John Singleton Copley

His pacing horse was adorned in the same airy manner, and seemed to share in the vanity of the rider. As I was pitying the luxury of this young person, who appeared to be educated as an object of sight alone, I perceived, on my nearer approach, a petticoat of the same with the coat and waistcoat; and now those features which had before offended me by their softness, were strengthened into as improper a boldness; and she, who in appearance was a very handsome youth, was in reality a very indifferent woman. These occasional perplexities, and mixtures of dress, seem to break in upon that propriety and distinction of appearance in which the beauty of different characters is preserved, and would, if much more common, turn our assemblies into a general masquerade, the model of this Amazonian hunting-dress, for ladies, was first imported from France, and well enough expresses the gaiety of a people who are taught to do anything, so it be with an assurance; but I cannot help thinking it fits awkwardly on our English modesty.

(c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The petticoat is too a kind of encumbrance upon this dress, and if we go on in thus plundering the other sex’s ornaments, we ought to add to our spoils, methinks, the more commodious breeches. There is so large a portion of natural agreeableness among the fair-sex of our island, that they seem betrayed into these romantic habits, without having the fame occasion for them with their inventors: All that needs to be desired of them is, that they would be themselves, that is, what nature designed them; and to see their mistake when they depart from this; let them look upon a man who affects the softness and effeminacy of a woman to learn how our sex must appear to the men , when so near approaches are made by us to their resemblance

Your most affectionate servant

Lydia Armstrong

Portrait of a Lady in a Riding Habit by Enoch Seeman the younger (c) Chawton House Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The average cost of a riding outfit was around £5, which is around £350 in today’s money (the equivalent of just over 1 month’s wages for a craftsman of the day), so not exactly a cheap purchase. Then of course there was cost of keeping the outfit clean and needless to say there was money to be made by inventing a powder that would be perfect for the task, as this advert for Williams’s Kerseymere and woollen cloth powder shows.

Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, 21st October 1785.

We thought it might be nice to finish with a few of the portraits painted during the Georgian era depicting women in riding habit, we hope you like our choice.

B2001.2.246
Portrait of a Young Woman of the Fortesque Family of Devon by Thomas Hudson c 1745 Courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art
B1981.25.620
The Countess of Coningsby in the Costume of the Charlton Hunt by George Stubbs c1760, Courtesy of The Yale Centre for British Art
Double-breasted riding waistcoat, c.1790-5. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Double-breasted riding waistcoat, c.1790-5.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The back lacing allowed a snug fit over stays and under a closely tailored coat. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The back lacing allowed a snug fit over stays and under a closely tailored coat.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London 
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15 thoughts on “18th Century Riding Habits

  1. Lovely illustrations and information. Such an elegant, if perhaps impractical, garment. And thanks for the link to my biography of Louis Bazalgette. Louis called the habits he made for Mrs Fitz ‘levets’ (levettes).

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  2. I would like to know what 18th Century women wore under a riding habit. Breeches, as was the case in the following century? Or did they suffer being rubbed raw by the saddle every time they rode?

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    • We’re honestly we’re not sure what, if anything they wore under their riding habit, but the skirt itself that had a train to protect their modesty. They rode side-saddle, so presumably it was reasonably comfortable for them. Perhaps one of our readers will know for sure 🙂

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    • Because they rode sidesaddle, their legs would be entirely covered by the skirt, petticoats, and stockings. They’d never actually come into contact with the leather with their skin.

      For women who were more interested in showing off their super fancy and expensive riding habits than actually riding, there would often be a groom leading the horse through the park.

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  3. I know for sure. Sidesaddle in insanely easy – unless you suddenly need to part ways with your horse.

    If you ride, sidesaddle looks difficult until you do it. You are basically sitting on a saddle like a chair seat with your thigh over a curved hook. Sit in a chair with arms, turn sideways and hook a leg over an arm. That’s your position in sidesaddle. It’s nothing like sitting sideways on a normal saddle or bareback. The hook is generously padded.

    Not interfering with the horse over jumps takes some… it wasn’t intuitive to me but it’s not difficult once you stop trying to use your legs. You’re still depending on your core but not in the same way. Maybe like the difference between balancing in an arabesque and a side plank – same muscle groups engaged but you use them differently.

    The UK still has a lot going on with sidesaddle and you sometimes see it at US dressage shows.

    Lots of sidesaddle in SCA and Halloween events.

    I’ve never heard of anyone being rubbed from sidesaddle. Not a threat in my experience. And I’ve stoopidly ridden in jeans when I was traveling without breeches or tights and killed the inside of my knee and calf with stirrup leathers.

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