With the weather finally beginning to shift towards summer, a Georgian lady might soon likewise shift from her red woolen riding habit from one of a lighter weight fabric for the season. This reproduction, left, made by the tailors of Colonial Williamsburg is fashioned from a white cotton twill jean. While this habit includes same traditional pieces as the more wintry wool variety – a jacket, petticoat, and contrasting buttoned waistcoat worn over a linen shirt – the style is simpler for summer, with self-covered buttons on the jacket and thread-wrapped buttons on the waistcoat, and no decorative cuffs or lacing. Best of all, the cotton fabric is cool and washable.
While it's often assumed that habits were worn exclusively for riding, there are plenty of 18th c. sources to prove that ladies often chose habits for other activities as well. Just as today there are many women wearing yoga pants who couldn't name a single pose, wearing a riding habit in the 18th c. didn't always involve a horse. The tailored style was a comfortable, less revealing option for any kind of traveling or informal activity. Caricatures of the ultra-fashionable Duchess of Devonshire even show her wearing a habit as she canvassed for votes (and kissed butchers) before the 1784 elections.
The two ladies in this detail of a family portrait, lowerright, are wearing habits to a musical party on a river barge. While other ladies in the group are dressed in gowns and lacy bonnets, these two seem perfectly at ease in their plain habits and black plumed hats, and perfectly attired, too.
Of course, not everyone approved. Because habits were so closely inspired by men's wear, they were the only 18th c. women's garments made by male tailors instead of female mantua-makers, and some observers judged this all to be a bit too gender-bending. Writing in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1731, a male observer found that a lady in her "Hermaphroditical Riding Habit... is hardly known from a very pretty Fellow. Saw [one] lately at a Gaming Table, with her Hair in a Soldierly Manner, turned under her cockaded Hat, her Jacket resembled a Man's Coat, and she frequently sat Bare-Headed. The Ladies must have odd Opinions of the Men, to think they can be most agreeable when they most resemble the Male Sex."
But by the late 18th c., wearing habits for day was common. In his Reminiscences, the Rev. T. Mozley noted that "Till...1835, it was a very ordinary thing to meet with ladies who, to save the trouble and cost of following fashion, never wore anything but a close-fitting habit. It required a good figure and bearing, that is, beauty unadorned....The effect, however, was apt to be masculine, and when prolonged to middle age gave the lady a kind of epicene character, in which she could take what part she pleased."
Author Fanny Burney also noted habits being worn to a ball at Bath in 1782 - even as she, too, commented on their gender ambiguity: "The room was very thin, and almost half the ladies danced with one another, though there were men enough present, I believe, had they chosen such exertion...Some of the ladies were in riding habits, and they made admirable men. 'Tis tonnish to be so much undressed at the last ball."
Above: Summer riding habit, made by the tailors of Colonial Williamsburg Below: Detail from The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany, 1779-81 Many thanks to Mark Hutter of Colonial Williamsburg for suggesting this post.
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.