History of Show Clothing - Part 1

One of the things I get asked the most by non-equestrians is “Why do you wear those clothes?” The obvious answer, of course, is that jodhpurs are practical and riding boots are designed for both comfort and safety in the saddle.

However, the answer gets a little more complicated if you’re talking about show clothing. After all, why do dressage riders compete in top hat and tails? Why do western pleasure riders wear bling?

In this two part series, we’re going to look at the history of equestrian show clothing and what’s available for modern horsey fashionistas.

In the beginning

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The earliest historical horse riding clothes presentations of man riding horses can be traced back to around 1900 B.C, although horses were domesticated in the 4th century B.C, and horses soon became essential for travel, hunting, and warfare.

However, archaeological evidence suggests that dedicated riding clothing was not worn until the Renaissance in Europe when riding became a leisure activity rather than a practical one.

The Achaemenid people, who ruled Persia from 550 to 330 B.C, were the first people to wear trousers when riding. The  Ancient Greeks and Romans favoured their everyday cloaks and robes, or in fact, nothing at all!

Riding as an art form

In the 16th Century riding became an art and developed into what we know in modern times as “dressage”. You can still see the methods used by early riding masters at The Spanish Riding School in Vienna today where the riders wear a 19th-century costume including white buckskin breeches and a bicorn hat.

Owning a horse purely for riding, rather than for practical purposes, was a sign of status and what better way to show off your wealth and power than by wearing your best clothes to ride your best horse?

In France, King Louis XIV decreed that you had to wear a special uniform if you were participating in the royal stag hunt.  This fashion soon spread among the European nobility who set to work designing their own uniforms. Elements of this fashion can still be seen today on the hunting field in the coloured jacket collars of each hunt association.

 Ride ‘em cowboy

As well as hunting, travel, and warfare horses have also been used for centuries to herd livestock. This is probably most famously seen in America where cowboys herd their animals for hundreds of miles on horseback.

The high heeled boots with rowled spurs and the wide brimmed hats originate from Spanish riding clothing, as it was  Spanish horses that were first introduced to America when the conquistadors introduced horses (and their unique style of clothing) to the New World.

Sturdy trousers, protective chaps, and a broad brimmed hat also offered protection from the elements and were practical for the tough job of herding and rearing cattle. The fabric was hard wearing and allowed riders to be flexible in the saddle.

An elaborate style soon phased out of everyday riding wear but was still seen in riding clothing designed to be “Sunday best”. It’s hard to imagine the original working cowboys wearing the rhinestone shirts seen at shows and competitions today!

Picture credits:

1940 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1940 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1910-1920 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1909 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1890 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1918 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1910 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Theresa McCaffrey