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Friday, 5 March 2004

Equestrian Fashion

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CLOTHESHORSE: A History and Guide to Riding Apparel
(An Excerpt)
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SKIN TIGHT
Few sports are as demanding as riding for uncompromising adherence to traditional attire. Few spectators would raise an overly-concerned eyebrow if a top-seeded tennis player were to appear in less-than-conventional all-white. Would the gallery gasp if a high-ranked PGA golfer, festooned in four-alarm colours, putted the links? Hardly. Yet, the dismay -- yea, the muted tuts of alarm -- would be papable, even in the unrated show ring, if a rider were to turn out in anything but the prescribed head-to-toe norm. A stuffy response? Perhaps. Simply reactionary? Assuredly, no.

Riding cannot asnd should not be singled out as the unique, unswerving bastion of sartorial staganancy. Other sports over the years have also preserved their playing costumes. Cricket readily comes to mind. And there is something nostalgic, even quaint -- despite modification since the golden years of Il Bambino -- of the pin-striped tenacity of the New York Yankees.

In many ways, the riding wardrobe differs significantly from other sporting clothes. Above all, few major sports are as persnickety about retinue. One is hard pressed to offer up another recreational activity that so strictly regulates the personal appointments of its participants. Indeed, there may well be no other world-class sport that so often judges -- even disqualifies -- its participants for negligent deviation from the sartorial standard.

For the unintitated, the coordination of riding attire (what goes with what in separates, in colour, and in fabric weights) can be a daunting study in nuance. No other civilian wardrobe can so easily ensnare the unwary, or the untutored -- giving rise to the beginner´s caveat: ''It''s better to be plain than plain wrong.''

Still, riding turn-out is less complex than many other sporting regalia in that is largely free of gender-based influences. With only limited exceptions, male and female riders dress in unisex homogeneity, an extension of the parity the sexes share in the saddle.

Riding ranks amongst only a handful of competitive sports in which men and women compete as peers at amateur and professional levels, and it is the only international and Olympic sport wherein gender is discounted.

The almost timeless agedness of equestrian attire distinguishes the apparel as singularly venerable as an influential fashion force.

Even the most contemporary revamping in styling is a mere blip in the nearly 200-year-old evolutionary span of riding dress. If nothing else, this longevity, dating from 19th-century Regency England, represents a remarkable tribute to the enduring shelf-life of equestrian fashion styles, unparalleled by other ''costumes'' worn today, be they for sports, leisure, or business.

Of course, riding clothes over time have been modified, restyled, and even reconstituted (not, in the least, in their manufacture and marketing). But styling transformations have tended to be subtle and, to the unlettered, less-than-keen eye, largely imperceptible.

Consider that biggest upheaval in the ''look'' of riding clothes has had less to do with styling than with fabric -- the mid-20th century development of the ''miracle'' synthetic polyester. Until the late 1960´s, the styling of riding apparel was larely untouched by the fashion whims and mercantilism of Seventh Avenue designers.

Now, with inextricable obduracy, low-cost synthetic fabrics have cunningly reshaped the detailing, fit, and quality of equestrian-wear.

For the lay observer, the most obvious styling change triggered by polyester and natural fibre blends was the passing of what had always been the most distinguishable feature of the equestrian kit, flared, or half-moon-sided, breeches.

There is more than a little irony in the the ''demise'' of flared breeches, and the resulting hand-wringing by many traditionalists who bewail the loss. As is so often the case in the circular cycle of fashion, even the styling of breeches has pivoted 360 degrees. It bodes well to remember -- though often it is not -- that breeches were as ''tight'' in the early years of the Regency as they are today.

Some breeches of the period were so form-fitting that only buckskin was strong enough to withstand the pressure from routine movement. In fabric breeches, a stretchy, knitted material known as stockinet was employed. Frequently, men ordered suits with breeches in varying degrees of tightness and comfort. Depending on the occasion, walking, dancing, or standing (say, at a reception), different breeches would be selected.

Only later, in the twilight years of the 19th century, did tailoring skills develop sufficiently to accommodate specific functional demands -- basically, the in-the-saddle roominess that the engorged legging afforded.

This comfort rationale -- that the thigh would not chafe when the rider was mounted -- viritually negated by poly blends. Four-way elasticity in synthetics provides equal, if not more, comfort to the leg.

As for convenience? ''You just put your breeches in the washing machine, and hang them, and they´re ready for the next hunt,'' one proponent of the ''miracle'' cure puts it.

The more prosaic, though larely unstated, reason for the continuing popularity of synthetic breeches surely has less to with in-the-saddle comfort than with another equally basic quality, out-of-the saddle sex appeal. The cut of modern breeches has fallen prey to the common aesthetic notion (applicable to many sporting, as well as non-sporting, garb) that tightfitting clothing enhances the body´s form.

As Anne Hollander illustrates in ''Seeing Through Clothes,'' the concept of skin-tight sensuality is hardly new. ''One reason for the strong and enduring attraction of [the] Regency male costume,'' Ms Hollander argues, ''is its balanced combination of tightness and looseness, of rigid control and romantic careless ease.''

What is new is that the skin-tight look is now mainly a female-oriented predilection.

(This an excerpt from "Clotheshorse: A History and Guide to Riding Apparel" by Richard Carreño. To order this book, and others, from Writers Clearinghouse Press, click @philabooks+philabooks).





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