Horseback riding was an important skill for 18th c English ladies. Not only was it a form of transportation, but it was also considered a suitable pastime for elegant Amazons, who liked to display their figures in closely-tailored habits as they rode side-saddle through the London parks or across the lands belonging to country houses.
We've shared plenty of examples of riding habits in the second half of the 18th c, such as these here and here, plus the proper hat to wear as well. But riding attire can't be entirely judged by contemporary portraits and prints. In most cases, the ladies are shown wearing the fashionable footwear of the day, which means dainty heeled shoes (like this shoe from 1785-90; there are dozens more on ourPinterest board.) Obviously this was a flattering style, and must have been a convenient way to display a well-turned ankle to all those officers riding in the park, too.
However, as is often the case, sensible reality wasn't quite so glamorous. While I've no doubt that there were ladies riding in shoes (just as there are modern young women riding on their boyfriend's motorcycles in slip-on flats), the true horsewomen of the time were beginning to wear riding boots like the ones left. With their rounded top, set-back heel, and pointed toe, they do look odd in comparison to 21st c boots, but if viewed as an "extension" of an 18th c lady's shoe, they make perfect sense.
Most 18th c women's shoes were constructed with cloth uppers, with silk for fine ladies, woolen for more ordinary women, and fastened with a buckle. Riding boots were made instead of practical leather, and laced securely up the front. They would have protected the foot (and those thin stockings) and offered a sure footing in the stirrup. That protection must have also been welcome walking across a muddy stable-yard or field, conditions that would have proved fatal to a delicate silk shoe.
Few examples of riding boots survive in collections today, and the ones shown here are considered quite rare. Most boots would have simply been worn out and discarded. Besides, utilitarian boots would not have been saved for sentimental reasons, the way shoes worn for a wedding or for a Court presentation were. This pair of riding boots, right, are a modern recreation of a pair c 1780, and were made entirely by hand by Valentine Povinelli, of the Shoemaker's Shop, Colonial Williamsburg.
Left: Women's Boots, 1780-95, leather. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photograph courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Right: Reproduction 18th c Women's Boots, c 2011, Colonial Williamsburg. Photograph copyright Susan Holloway Scott.
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.