18th Century Women’s Riding Habits

Last updated: Jan 7, 2024

Cally Blackman, in Walking Amazons, notes that, by the mid-18th century, the riding habit “had become an essential part of the wardrobe of fashionable middle and upper class women – a position which it retained for many decades. Its development ran in tandem with that of the male suit and, whilst details of cut and trimming changed with fashion, it always retained its basic format of habit jacket, skirt and optional waistcoat. As well as for riding or following the hunt, it was particularly worn for travelling and increasingly as informal day wear; for walking, visiting and at home as an alternative to, for example, a nightgown, in which to spend the day until required to dress more formally … Enthusiastically adopted by many women, it offered a degree of comfort and warmt that was not possible to achieve with other items of fashionable dress.”

The use of the riding habit in non-equestrian contexts is further illustrated in portraits and other artwork linked below, as well as in an essay from The Lady’s Magazine (1789):

Of the riding-habits lately become ſo common with thoſe who never ride, I ſhall only obſerve, that however befitting it may be to ladies in the character of Diana, it is ſtill a maſculine garb, and in our eyes does not add thoſe graces to the female appearance which have been by ſome ſuppoſed peculiar to it. When firſt introduced into this country, it was worn only by ladies when intending to go on horſeback, and has many conveniences for that exerciſe. To put it on, therefore, when one pays a viſit, or goes to church, is ſuch a deviation from the original deſign, that I hope the ladies will take the matter into ſerious conſideration.

Similar complaints are taken up in The Gentleman’s Magazine (1731):

Condemns the Lady’s Hermophroditical Riding Habit … As to the Ladys Riding Habit, the Waſtecoat and Petticoat are convenient and becoming, that is, the Feminine Waſtecoat, not the Maſculine. Thaleſtris, in her Riding Habit, his hardly known from a very pretty Fellow. Saw her lately at a Gaming Table, with her Hair, in a Soldierly Manner, turned under her cockaded Hat, her Jacket reſembled a Man’s Coat, and ſhe fequently ſat Bare-headed. The Ladies muſt have odd Opinions of the Men, to think they can be moſt agreeable when they moſt reſemble the Male Sex. How would they like a young Fellow making Love to them in a Suit of Pinners, a Pair of Stays, and a Mantua? The Reaſon of Diſguſt holds good on both Sides.

Aprehends that the Maſculine Habits the Ladies affect, will give them a bold and Maſculine Behaviour. Being lately on the Road, he expected a real pretty Fellow would have been thrown off his Horſe, by one of theſe Amazons, who ſeem’d reſolved to have the Way: But Miſchief was prevented by caſting his Eye on the Petticoat.

His Friend Truelove, who was juſt on the Point of Marriage, is grown cool on the Matter, on his Miſtreſs’s aſſuming one of theſe Habits. He thinks, that when a Woman has got all but the Breeches, ſhe will ſtruggle hard for them too.

Portraits of women in riding habits