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.