Twists and Turns

Side-saddlers are oh, so smart! Scrupulously correct position in the seat, with and without skirt, as illustrated in Doreen Houblon's instruction manual of 1938, titled 'Side-Saddle'.

Side-saddlers are oh, so smart! Scrupulously correct position in the seat, with and without skirt, as illustrated in Doreen Houblon’s instruction manual of 1938, titled ‘Side-Saddle’ (Country Life and Scribner’s)

To every thing there is a season – turn, turn, turn! Academic life has a certain rhythm.  Annually goes the round of semesters, assessment boards, exam results and graduation ceremonies.  This circularity was brought home to me when my latest publication dropped on the doormat (well, when it dropped on the MMU receptionist’s desk in actual fact), just last week.

What’s the publication?  It’s a chapter, on side-saddle dress, titled ‘Riding Dress History with A Twist:  The Side-Saddle Habit and the Horse in the Early Twentieth Century’ and it appears in a book, Domesticated Animals and Leisure, edited by my much-respected colleague, Neil Carr, from the University of Otago, Dunedin and published by Palgrave Macmillan.

But where’s the circularity?  I first presented a draft version of the chapter way back last February (2015) at the annual Sport and Leisure History symposium, held at MMU Cheshire.  Then, the piece was still in its gestation period and the symposium, master-minded by Dr Dave Day (another valued colleague and sport historian par excellence), proved a useful opportunity to test out some of my ideas and, perhaps even more importantly, to kick start me and my thinking and writing into action.  Twelve months on, as I now begin to draft out an entirely new and different paper (on dude ranching and vacation dress), for delivery at the 2016 Sport and Leisure History symposium, the marking of a passing year is never more timely.

So, without stepping on my publisher’s toes, here’s a brief snippet from my ‘Riding Dress History With A Twist’ chapter.  My premise is that the horse is too often overlooked in scholarly analyses of riding dress and that dress historians forget to consider that side-saddle skirts and ‘habit dress’ were intended to be worn in the pursuit of beastly activity on the back of a horse – and that this duly impacted and influenced the style and design.

Goodrum, in Carr (2015: 193-4):

…no matter what the style of the habit skirt, it is undeniable that it remained a garment of significant material yardage, comprising a sizeable quantity of darkly hued, hard wearing melton, whipcord or broadcloth textile.  If these skirts were unweildy for the female rider, then they too interfered with, or were at least troublesome to, the horse.  Horses were trained specially to carry side saddles, and as part of this process of breaking in, they also had to be trained to become accustomed to the vast expanse of fabric that was the side saddle skirt.  With the potential to flap about in the wind, to fly up over a jump and to flop around on mounting, the skirt was a source of unease and anxiety for an inexperienced horse.  As Houblon (1938: 3) warned “when a horse encounters ‘drapery’ for the first time he may quite possibly think it strange.” Hayes (1903 [1893]: 440), too, offered counsel on those horses that she described as being ‘habit shy’.  “I use this term”, she wrote, “to designate the trick that some horses, chiefly those which are unaccustomed to the side-saddle, have of sidling away from the skirt.”  Both experts – Houblon and Hayes alike – recommended that a groom be engaged to assist in the steady initiation of the horse to mocked-up approximations of the skirt’s fullness.  For example, a rug worn by a groom at exercise or a long mackintosh were suggested as proxy devices to be used in the training of a habit-shy equine.



The Sweet Smell of Scholarship


Chetham’s Library, Manchester, founded 1653.  An inspiring location for a Research Away Day, Jan 2016.

With its dark skies, short days and cold temperatures, the month of January can be a bit of a challenge.  Yet brightness and hope were in abundance yesterday at the Apparel Research Cluster Leaders’ Away Day.  Five of us (myself included, along with my Associate Dean of Research and the trusty Cluster Leaders: Prabu, Shuyu and Kathy) were ‘away’ on the other side of Manchester city centre at Chetham’s School of Music.  Our purpose was to discuss strategy and tactics for the continuing development of the Apparel Research Group, which I head up.  We did this by thinking about short and long term goals, assigning tasks (the key to leadership is delegation, right?), planning some future research events, listening to, and learning from, an invited critical friend (the inspiring Professor Martyn Evans from our School of Art) and also, importantly, spending time with each other in a fresh, and therefore, stimulating environment.

And, what an environment Chetham’s proved to be!  I had booked The Audit Room for our meeting, which is part of a complex of Medieval Buildings arranged around a cloistered courtyard and immaculately manicured formal parterre.  The Audit Room boasted a view of the Cathedral as well as its own timbered ceiling replete with grotesque carvings.  Our day’s discussions, then, were overseen by a carved Mouth of Hell mask, which adorned the ceiling, and depicted a sinner being ingested in its grisly jaws.  Stirring stuff, indeed!

Why the blog entry?  Well, in answer to that, our day included an archive element.  At lunchtime, I had arranged for us to have a tour of the famous Chetham’s Library (founded in 1653), located just upstairs from us.  What a sensory experience!  As we ascended the staircase, the smell of thousands of books, centuries-old, was all pervading.  History is perfumed with an intoxicating, and not unpleasant, mustiness.  Raking winter sun shone through the leaded windows.  And, best of all, we were permitted to handle some of the books from the collection dating from the seventeenth century.  Fergus, the curator, kindly selected some books on ecclesiastical and national dress, richly illustrated with etched drawings on linen rag paper.  The Reading Room, where we viewed these, was furnished with artefacts from the 1650s.  On the wall, was an elaborate heraldic and emblematic display commemorating Humphrey Chetham and his foundation.  Fittingly for us, as research-driven visitors to Chetham’s, this tympanum bore books and torches, symbolic of learning, as well as a cockerel to suggest hard work.  Surely, a good omen for the new year and new academic term ahead?

Architectural and archival wonderment aside, did our Away Day prove productive in terms of our work-related objectives?  I believe so, and I sign off here with some of the research advice, generously shared with us yesterday by Professor Evans, ringing most melodically in my ears:

1.Know ‘who’ you are as a researcher or research cluster.  Know what you do, do what you do, and do it well.

2. Don’t be a ‘one hit wonder’ and flit from unrelated project to project. Establish a specialism and maintain a track record in a particular research area.  Articulate the narrative between your research interests.

3. Don’t be a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’.  Bring research and teaching together as closely as possible, even if the fit isn’t perfect.

4. Publicise your research through networking and use social media to ‘get it out there’.  Communication of your research is needed both internally to university colleagues and to the world beyond.

5. Be clear about knowing ‘when you’ve got there’.  How will you recognise the fulfilment of your goals and aims.  What will you do when you’ve reached them?