“Miss Crawford's enjoyment of riding was such that she did not know how to leave off.” Mansfield Park.
I recently finished a book that will be coming out in summer 2008 called Unmasked. It features a band of highwaywomen who redress injustice on behalf of the poor. One of the first problems I came up against in my research was that although I enjoy riding I am not particularly competent at it and certainly not good enough to know what it would be like to be an excellent rider in the nineteenth century! So I went to talk to an expert in side saddle riding, Toni Besley, who is a member of the British Side Saddle Association. She not only helped me out with the details of both side saddle and riding astride (my highwaywomen, naturally enough, rode like men!) but also explained about fascinating details such as saddle design and fashions in riding habits. Here is a little bit of the information she gave me on fashions.
It was Queen Henrietta Maria, an arbiter of fashion, who introduced hunting and riding dresses for ladies in the sixteenth century. Prior to that women had worn their ordinary clothes to go riding but by the late sixteenth century women wore a protective overskirt or “safeguard,” with cloak, hat, boots and a mask to guard the complexion from mud and other unpleasant substances.
The first riding habits were modelled on male attire, with a military style particularly popular. By the time of the Regency the fashion for voluminous riding coats (redingote) had been replaced by a simpler style, often with a high waistline and pleated jacket back. Materials included wool or nankeen and also velvet.
One interesting point was that feminine underwear was not suitable to wear beneath riding breeches. What ladies did about underwear if they chose to ride in this way is maybe best left to the imagination!