We've discussed here (and hereandhere) how 18th c. ladies dressed for riding. Their habits were crisply tailored and buttoned with a masculine, military flair, and featured a close-fitted bodice over a flowing skirt. Solid colors were the rule, again adding a uniform flavor. Many English ladies were skilled horsewomen, and even if they weren't, they believed in dressing the part.
Yet all that brisk horse-sense went out the window when it came to what they wore on their heads. Not for them the modern hard-shell protective helmets. No, the 18th c. lady crowned her riding attire much as she would with any dress for day: with a froth of feathers.
Regardless of the color of the habit, the most popular hats were monochrome black, with feathers, cockades, ribbons, and buttons in black as well. This replica, left, (from the Margaret Hunter milliner's shop in Colonial Williamsburg) is typical of the last quarter of the 18th c., and brings to life the jaw-dropping reality of the height and wafting excess that were typical. One can only imagine what the horses must have thought to see such a confection heading their way – and how many ribbons and hat pins were necessary to keep one in place.
While it's often the case that the most extreme examples of 18th c. fashion shown in satirical prints were exaggerations, in this case the plumed hats were very much worn by real ladies. This 1793 portrait by George Stubbs (1724-1806) of the infamous Lady Laetitia Lade (right) shows her nonchalantly sitting side-saddle on her rearing horse, her black-plumed hat nearly touching the branches overhead. Laetitia was scandalous for a good many reasons, but no one ever doubted her seriousness or skill where horses were concerned: she was wed to Sir John Lade, himself considered one of the best horsemen and breeders of the Regency era. If Laetitia rode in a tall, feathered hat like this one, then yes, it was definitely Done -– and done with style. (Look for a post soon about Laetitia, an Intrepid Woman if ever there was one.)
Right: Laetitia, Lady Lade, by George Stubbs, 1793, The Royal Collection
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.