Civil War Era Riding Habits
The following is an excerpt from a talk I gave at the Midwest Civil War Civilians Conference in 2005.
Most of the fashion plates in the ladies magazines of the time show women with beautiful riding habits, however, not all women wore riding habits. Some women wore dark colored street dresses with riding skirts. Rebecca Latimer Felton wrote in her book, “Every woman who rode horseback had a riding skirt made of substantial home weaving with a belt but open to the hem. These riding skirts protected the dresses and were in universal use when my mother and grandmother were young. After I came along, also a horseback rider until I was seventy years old, I owned once or twice a riding habit, but had my early training with my mother’s riding skirt and sidesaddle.” Rebecca was born in 1835.
The styles of riding habits, were almost as varied as those of the everyday dresses. And like the everyday dresses of the civil war were copied from the pages of Ladies magazines. The ladies habit consisted of a jacket and skirt. The jacket could be very plain or heavily corded. They could button all the way up or only part way with revers (lapels). You could find jockeys on the backs as well as on the sleeves. The sleeves on the jacket varied as much as the decorations on it. They went from nearly tight to the arm to coat sleeves. Some were described as having no cuffs to deep gauntlet style cuffs. Some were closed at the wrist, some were not. There was even a description of one that the sleeves were slashed at the middle of the arm so that you could see the undersleeves.
The skirt there seems to be two styles for these. One which is the same length all around but 1/3 to ½ yd longer than a street dress. And the skirt that is shorter in the front than the back. The trained skirt is much easier for a lady to walk in. The ladies habit could be made of “soft cloth, merino or velvet.” The skirt was usually left plain. The colors of the habit varied the most popular colors being various shades of dark green, blue, brown, gray and black.
These two pieces could be worn as a 2 piece ensemble or the skirt could be attached to the jacket. Under the skirt would have been worn a pair of trousers. These should match the color of the skirt. These could be made entirely of cloth or of chamois or a combination of both.
Under all of this the lady would still be wearing her normal undergarments. A few of the articles suggest that the lady was wearing one to three petticoats. However, in “The Horse Through Fifty Centuries of Civilization”, it is stated “Petticoats on horseback were deprecated. Indeed, they were unnecessary….”
Add to the undergarments, a chemisette and undersleeves, a necktie or cravat, the most popular color in the lady’s magazines seem to be cherry silk, blue silk and black ribbon, long stockings and possibly a vest. On her feet she would have been wearing gaiters or boots with heels. On her hands gloves or gauntlets of buff, black or white leather and on her head a hat with a veil. The hat seems to be almost as varied as the dresses. The fashion plates show everything from low crowned hats to straw hats, small beaver hats to leghorn hats and even a turban hat. One thing that does seem to be consistent is that they were usually black or gray. The veils on the hats were described as being made of grenadine or tissue in brown, gray and dark blue.
One final note, as with any research, there is always more to learn and other researchers may have found more or different information than I have. What I have written here is not by any means a complete guide to Civil War riding habits. It is meant to be a starting point for your own research into this topic.
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