Riding and Walking Dress, 1831-1837


History of Costume I 1800-1899

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English women still had one avenue of escape from the secluded existence that threatened their sex as the century advanced, and that with our old friend the horse. At all periods in history the frailer sex in control of the powerful animal had been a matter for romantic admiration – a fact that all heroines of fiction or reality had turned to useful account. Queen Elizabeth, clever woman, knew very well the effect her appearance, mounted on a charger, would have on her chivalrous or sentimental male subjects. This advantage was, of course, the privilege of the woman of means and was granted to very few to assert their independence from domestic bondage. As in all female movements the manifestation of equality and freedom was in looking as much like the opposite sex as was possible (it is to be hoped for the future independence of the present generation that the adoption of feminine hair-styles by the male will even things out). The riding habit, except for the long trailing skirt, was exactly like that of a man, including the trousers strapped und er the boot, the stock and the top hat. The element of romance lay in the graceful line of the skirt and the flowing veil that blew out in a provocative trail with the rapid movement of the gallop. In the ‘thirties the shoulders followed the sloping line to the big, low gathered sleeves of the prevailing fashion. The bodice and skirt were attached and the double-breasted front could be decorated in twists of military braid. The English Amazon was soon the envy of the French non-conformer and in the next generation, when women had been pushed well into the background, horsemanship, or the appearance of it, became an obsession, as it appeared to be the one way in which woman could assert her independence, and more than one adventuress crashed her way through Europe and the conventions whip in hand. The semi-masculine riding habit on a sprightly woman was extremely attractive withal and made dalliance on the Row (which from the numbers of fashion plates designated ‘Walking Costume’ was a popular and essential occupation) more exciting than leaning against a carriage with its insipid or femme fatale occupants. English men were slow to follow the styles of their more dramatic neighbours and the change from the country gentleman to the dandy was very gradual, missing out the more theatrical of the medieval clothes. The leading male Romantics did their best to break away from the accepted and hum-drum costume of the ordinary man of the day but their eccentricities were only accepted by the Englishman when he had adapted the line to suit his own ideas of what became him: the slouch hats were not seen in London except on artists or dancing masters, but he accepted the fancy waistcoats and patterned trousers, going one better than the French in a variety of tartans, so conveniently part of Scottish wear. The surtout, or topcoat, in a lighter-weight material, much shortened, the skirts and body cut separately so that the hips could be rounded and full, was accepted and evolved into that badge of Victorianism, the frock coat. The wide-open front and rolled collar and lapels showing a breadth of fancy waistcoat were also admitted to the wardrobe of the fashionable man-about-town, while the trousers that had already become looser now widened at the hips and clung to the legs as the prototype peg tops of the ‘forties and ‘fifties. What the Romantics were successful in launching to a happy conclusion was the beard, a necessary adjunct of the medieval look but a thing that had disappeared during the whole of the 18th century. The Englishman cautiously embarked on a test of this innovation by letting his side-whiskers grow further and further down his cheek until they met in a nasty little fringe under the chin. He was so pleased with the effect that he proceeded to experiment with variations on the same theme, finally allowing the hair to sprout from under the nose until he achieved the woolly look of the Ancient Briton and gave the 19th century the hairy image it even bequeathed to the early years of the 20th, up to the time of the First World War. The ‘thirties saw the rise of that phenomenon the English dandy. Although the vital spirit of Romanticism was an Englishman, Lord Byron like all prophets impressed the foreigner far more than his despised English brethren, and quite another romantic ennui grew up later, through poets and artists rebelling against the general bad taste. The dandy – a purely English word – did not kick against the conventions; the stricter the etiquette the more superior he proved himself by being able to flout it and still be accepted and admired. When the classes were clearly defined, up to the early years of the 19th century, the buck or the Olympian could mix freely with his inferiors of the theatre or sporting world. He was easily recognized as one of the ruling class. It was a natural and accepted relationship enjoyed and not infringed by either side. This happy state of affairs was reversed with the new class of hated businessman, or industrialist with a great deal of money, trying to buy himself into a society that had been a closed shop for generations. Now that its privileges were threatened it did what all jealous minorities have done – set up a ritual around all its quite ordinary behaviour which it fondly hoped would be a mystery to all but the chosen few and would show up the parvenu by his lack of initiation. The English movement differed from the Romantic abroad, which was mainly of artists and men of letters against the bad taste of the increasingly powerful middle class and was therefore less admirable, having the first nasty whiff of modern snobbery about it that was to be increased by the same parvenu when at last he finally achieved the Nirvana of the elite. The dandy, being accepted by his peers, could influence fashion by eccentricities that no tailor could even hope to sell, and it was he, in England, who tried out the embryo beard and the languid air that probably came from tight lacing on a pinched waist. Romanticism faded and died by 1837 as its exponents became popular or less enthusiastic. The last figure on Plate VII shows how woman’ s clothes became affected by the change. The shoulders droop even more dejectedly and except in the pelisse that continued in favour through many generations the sleeves lose their fullness and dramatic character. The gay flat hats that had sometimes sported high crowns and mounds of flowers and ribbons were bent round the face in the obscuring and familiar poke-bonnet shape, and the skirts lengthened to hide the feet and touch the ground. The turgid spirit of Romanticism had never been understood by the majority and without the sentiment all that was left was the mawkish sentimentality – of which more anon.

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Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm