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History of Equestrian Fashion: 1920s to 1940s

A history of equestrian fashion: part 2.

Historically, women’s equestrian fashion has mirrored the role of women in society at the time. Before the 14th century women often rode pillion or astride, but from the 1380s onwards riding sidesaddle began to be associated with female virtue and purity, particularly if she was of noble birth. These ideas persisted into the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Women wishing to ride astride were described as ‘mad, ignorant ungraceful desperados’ and ‘violating the laws of good taste’.

Bicycle riding for women became popular in the 1890s, prompting changes in women’s fashion. Horse riding fashions were much slower to change however, particularly in the very conservative United Kingdom and American east coast where horse riding was often associated with the upper classes. American women were granted the right to vote in 1920 and with these rights began a gradual shift in the general views surrounding women’s liberty. The American West led the charge towards this new world, with the LA Times declaring that ‘the sidesaddle is a cruel burden on a horse and all right-thinking people believe its time is past’.

A new way of riding demanded new equestrian clothing to suit. Women eager to try riding astride soon found the ideal article of clothing: jodhpurs. Originally designed in Northern India, jodhpurs were introduced into the UK by the popular new sport of polo. Polo was also invented in India during British colonial rule in the 1830s and British army officers introduced both polo and jodhpurs to the UK in the late 1800s. Jodhpurs were designed to have leather patches on the inside of the leg for protection against saddle rubs and unlike standard English breeches, jodhpurs continued down to the ankle instead of stopping mid-calf. This design provided better leg protection and also made wearing expensive long boots unnecessary. English Savile Row tailors perfected this new baggy breech and the design was extremely popular with men for riding both horses and motorcycles in the First World War. The flared hips design was useful for riding in warm climates and also for comfort in the saddle, as stretch fabrics had not yet been invented. A leather seat was later introduced for even greater comfort and protection, and jodhpurs became part of the accepted dress code for riding.

Madge Bellamy showing off her jodhpurs in the 1920s

Conservative circles may have been scandalized by women adopting jodhpurs, but some women were not willing to wait around until riding astride was universally accepted. Coco Chanel helped to trailblaze women’s equestrian fashions in the 1920s by designing her own jodhpurs based on the clothing of the male riders around her. Confident, independent Hollywood stars like Madge Bellamy (above) wore stylish jodhpurs on film and Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell (below) also embraced the new style. Mitchell herself embraced a liberated lifestyle and was certainly unique - the daughter of a progressive mother, she preferred trousers over dresses and until the age of 14 introduced herself as ‘Jimmy’. Her flirtatious beauty, outrageous dancing and fashion choices certainly raised eyebrows in polite society at the time.

Margaret Mitchell in 1920, preparing to refuse a marriage proposal

Women’s style resembling anything masculine has always been controversial. Prior to the 1920s, most women in ‘respectable’ Western society wore their hair long to emphasise their femininity. The First World War saw some change in attitudes towards short hair on women, as long hair was simply impractical for any kind of war work. Although the short ‘bob’ hairstyle appeared in Paris as early as 1909, ballroom dancer Irene Castle introduced the ‘Castle bob’ style in 1915 and by the 1920s the bob was starting to become widely fashionable – at least among the younger generation. In response to this bold change in style some American preachers railed against the bob, declaring that ‘a bobbed woman is a disgraced woman’. In 1927, the opera singer Mary Garden wrote an article explaining why she had chosen to bob her hair. She described bobbed hair to be ‘a state of mind…I consider getting rid of our long hair one of the many little shackles that women have cast aside in their passage to freedom.’

The 1920s also saw increasing popularity of the Flapper lifestyle. ‘Flapper girls’ usually wore their hair bobbed but they also indulged in other rebellious past-times like smoking, drinking (particularly bold during Prohibition), wearing plenty of makeup and listening to jazz. D.R. Murray-Leslie criticized the Flapper girls for being ‘frivolous…irresponsible and undisciplined.’ Short hair and straight-waisted dresses without corsets became associated with typical Flapper style. In the late 1920s and 1930s, some women took the style revolution a step further and began wearing trousers, usually slacks. Movie stars such as Katharine Hepburn (below) and Marlene Dietrich routinely wore slacks on film and cultivated a somewhat androgynous image. Both women are now considered far ahead of their time both in terms of fashion and in their outspoken determination to dress for themselves instead of dressing only to impress men. Hepburn famously protested a studio decision to replace her usual slacks with a skirt by walking around the studio in her underwear until her slacks were returned.

Katharine Hepburn in her trademark slacks, 1930s

The 1930s were a landmark period in fashion. Women began to wear trousers not because they wished to play sports and wanted a more practical garment, but simply because they wanted to. In 1933, the Women’s Wear Daily magazine posed the question: ‘Will Women Wear Trousers?’ By the late 1930s it became clear that the answer was an emphatic yes. A 1939 edition of American Vogue declared ‘whatever else you have, you’ll want—if you weigh under a hundred and fifty—a pair or two of slacks.’ However, opinions among equestrians were still divided. Should female riders wear the traditional sidesaddle habit, or should they embrace the new and modern practice of wearing jodhpurs or pants to ride astride? Due this lack of consensus, many high-class tailors and fashion houses began to offer riding outfits for riding sidesaddle or astride. A 1927 issue of Vogue (below) shows English-style sidesaddle habits imported by Saks Fifth Avenue and also a hacking jacket with jodhpurs, complete with the ‘correct’ boots, gloves and hat. The magazine did emphasise that the outfit for riding astride was ‘casual’, and suitable only for informal summer shows and hacking.

1927 issue of Vogue, showing current fashions for riding astride and sidesaddle

Debate surrounding women’s riding fashions continued. Well-bred English ladies were still riding, hunting and even point-to-point racing sidesaddle well into the 1930s. The English upper classes were particularly slow to relinquish sidesaddle, with some ladies riding astride and some riding sidesaddle. Meanwhile, cowgirls in the American West were routinely wearing practical pants and jeans for ranch work and famous adventurers like Amelia Earhart helped to make jodhpurs an exciting modern fashion. The well-known English children’s book The Young Rider stated ‘girls almost without exception learn to ride astride nowadays’ and yet a Times newspaper journalist reporting from the famous Olympia horse show in 1931 wrote snarkily that riding astride ‘can never make a lady on a horse look like a LADY on a horse’.

Elizabeth Taylor on the set of National Velvet, 1944

Hollywood stars like Bette Davis helped to glamorise jodhpurs and further their acceptance. The 1944 film National Velvet advanced the idea that women were confident and capable in the saddle, with a young Elizabeth Taylor (above) guiding the Pie to victory in the Grand National steeplechase. However, after the outbreak of the Second World War prejudices regarding women’s riding clothes gave way to practicality. Women of all social classes pitched in to help the war effort and delicate fashions were simply unsuitable for this type of work. The British Land Army employed women to work with horses and on other farm duties during the war and jodhpurs were part of their official uniform. Images of Rosie the Riveter replaced those of women in expensive and delicate pre-war designs. The war had other effects on fashion generally. Luxurious and expensive fabrics such as silk became extremely difficult to source. Certain materials and dyes were restricted by the British government as they were needed to make explosives and from 1942, embellishments on clothes such as extra embroidery, buttons or pockets were restricted or even illegal. Factories producing equestrian clothing were commandeered to produce military uniforms and the Paris fashion industry partially collapsed after the German invasion. With almost no fashion news filtering through from Europe, USA designers began to develop their own independent style.

In the aftermath of strict rationing, post-war fashions tended to be more elegant and luxurious and attitudes to fashion were less rigid. A cover photo from a 1947 edition of Life magazine (below) shows Ms Judy Hall in smart yet casual riding clothes, demonstrating how much women’s equestrian fashion had evolved in a few short decades. An eventing competition poster from the same year also shows a lady rider with no hat, gloves or jacket - a far cry from the stiff and proper riding clothes required by polite society only a decade or two earlier.

Judy Hall on the cover of Life magazine in 1947, and a three-day-eventing poster from the same year

The introduction of Christian Dior’s New Look took the fashion world by storm in 1947. Gone were the boxy jackets and sensible dresses of the war-time era, replaced with full skirts and wasp waisted tailored jackets. The 1950s saw the rise of famous fashion houses like Gucci and Polo Ralph Lauren - the fashion world was about to enter a post-war golden age.

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