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Riding Aside

Have you ever wondered why women rode aside, or on a side-saddle? What brought it about? Why not ride astride, as had been done for centuries from ancient Egypt until the Medieval Period? Our current temporary exhibit looks at a brief history of riding aside and some of the issues women dealt with, particularly during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).

Why this specific period in time? Because it was the age of great exploration, colonization and advances and inventions in science, medicine, architecture and so much more; yet, it was one of the most rigid social eras and affected every facet of daily life. Here is just a segment of the exhibit for your enjoyment.

Women riding aside (side-saddle) was the result of social and political protocols that evolved through the rise of feudalism and patriarchal politics. From the Medieval Era, a women’s place and role in society orbited within the dictates of a patriarchal system. The importance of securing a male heir dictated the rules of permissible behavior for women; especially those of the royal and noble classes; not the “lower orders”. Due to their value as a means for their male family members to gain wealth and/or status, the maiden virtue of those young girls and women was of paramount importance, thus much was done to protect their modesty, including how they were permitted to ride a horse.

In the Antebellum period (1820-65) of the Victorian Era the socially approved riding garments for ladies was not

very different from her walking or day garments. Riding costumes were crafted of outdoor fabrics such as cotton, linen and wool, and often finely embellished. Women still wore their stockings, pantalettes, stockings, garters, chemise, corset, corset cover and petticoats under their garments whether riding or not. The most notable difference between day and riding costumes is that the riding garment was worn without a hoop to support the voluminous skirt and multiple petticoats. While elegant, these riding garments proved rather dangerous for the equestrienne. Looking at the exhibit photograph (right), you can see the full shape of the floral walking dress supported by a hoop. The riding dress has the same amount of fabric, but no hoop. Without the structural hoop support, the rider could not even walk in the dress (and petticoats) without holding it up out of the way. She also had to work with mounting and riding with the excess material and weight of her garments.

(NOTE: In the Antebellum photograph to the right, you can see the tip of the rider's boot under the fabric of her skirt. There is probably a good yard (3-feet!) of material below her boot and perhaps 120" circumference.)

This 1855 illustration from Punch magazine parodies the growing width of skirts both in mainstream fashion and in riding habits.

The size of hooped skirts became so large, that even cartoonists, such as in this 1855 “Punch Magazine” illustration, noted the difficulty so much fabric presented to a rider. All of that excess fabric had to be arranged to drape along the outer left side of the rider, covering her “lower limbs” from view. Unfortunately if the horse became unruly, or bolted, that fabric would often become ensnared with the straps or stirrups of the saddle, sometimes cause the rider to be dragged until the horse was stopped, or ceased running on its own.

Special safety stirrups were created that would release the lady's foot, which helped prevent most dragging potential. Fortunately, following the American Civil War, fashions changed to narrower skirts “bustled” in the back; a fashion trend that presented its own set of difficulties for the women of the 1870s through to the turn of the century (1900) and end of the Victorian Era (1901). From 1902-1910, the Edwardian Era, corseting was the fashion decree of the day.

Come visit us to learn about the etiquette of riding, see the 5 beautiful saddles, costumes and Period pieces, and educational panels of this exhibit. The exhibit will be available until the last week of July.

Our thanks to Ms. Heidi McMurran for the loan of her saddles and garments which made this unique exhibit possible.


Photograph the painting of a young Queen Victoria courtesy

Exhibit Costumes, The James Madison Museum of Orange County Heritage

Black and white photograph of Antebellum rider courtesy Mary Godwin UK Pinterest

"Punch Magazine" from "Horses & History" October 23, 2012.

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