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