Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by Deb Fuller. She’s a horse-crazy independent costume historian in the Washington, DC, area. She started riding at 9 and hasn’t stopped, nearly 40 years later.
This article contains mild spoilers for season 2 of Bridgerton, (2020-), but if you’re like most frock flickers, you’ll have watched it at least once by the time you read this article.
Kate Sharma is the educated, independent, outspoken lead of Bridgerton, season 2. Given her strong character, it is not surprising that she is the older, spinster sister of this season’s ingenue, Edwina. One common and extremely overused trope in period shows is that strong women must buck social conventions and insist on riding astride, not aside in sidesaddle.
If Bridgerton had been set in the early 1900s and Kate was a fierce suffragist, this would be accurate. One way that suffragists and other women’s rights advocates asserted themselves was by donning trousers and riding astride. You see that in Downton Abbey when Lady Mary bobs her hair in a fit of liberation and then starts riding astride in the hunt. But Bridgerton is set in the Regency when there were a lot of opinions about the proper way for ladies to ride.
Kate is introduced to the viewers by galloping past Anthony Bridgerton (on a Friesian, of course) in the early morning. When Anthony finally catches up, he’s surprised to see a woman riding astride. He asks if her maid knows she is riding astride and when she asserts herself as being an independent woman, he says that her secret is safe with him.
Anthony is being overly polite and is hinting at the fact that during this time period, riding astride was scandalous as people thought it would stretch a woman’s vagina. No joke. This is especially unthinkable for an unmarried lady, as if word got out, no one would want to marry someone with a blown-out hoo-ha. This cartoon from Punch magazine aptly illustrates this point and even makes a further dig at the young lady by the sailor’s remarks, who is implying she is of loose morals.
I can accept Kate riding astride as she grew up in India, outside of the social conventions and prying eyes of the Western world and the ton. I don’t know much about the history of Indian women and riding, but from what little I’ve read, women were avid riders and supposedly never rode sidesaddle. They also learned polo, which was invented in India as well. So riding astride in the wee hours of the morning fits Kate’s character and background. She knows it’s scandalous, but she wants to have a little bit of freedom before every move that she and her sister make is meticulously scrutinized.
What’s completely irritating is that she plopped on a horse in one of her silk dresses, complete with all the layers of petticoats. That is not only ridiculous but uncomfortable. No one rode in silk clothing apart from a cravat and a top hat. Silk is too delicate to withstand all the dirt, sweat, and horsehair. You’d also slide around too much in the saddle. I directed a horse camp ages ago, and one of my boys quickly regretted wearing Umbros with his chaps. Shorts and chaps are common in the summer — but not slick, polyester basketball shorts. Ouch!
Trousers with riding habits started to show up from the late 1700s and are still used today. As ladies got more adventurous with riding, they lost the petticoats and just used trousers under their skirts. You still saw women riding in regular dresses as well but trousers under riding habits were common by the Regency. Later in the 1800s, they became the standard and are necessary if you are wearing a safety apron. Given that Kate is from India, she would have been perfectly comfortable in trousers and it would have added more credibility to why she was riding astride.
Later, Kate joins the men in a hunting expedition. She’s dressed in a lovely riding habit but again, is riding astride. This completely goes against her character. Previously, Kate insisted to Lady Danbury that she was perfectly capable of teaching her younger sister how to be a proper English lady. She is also her sister’s main chaperone for the season and makes sure her reputation is flawless. So why risk her sister’s reputation by riding astride among men, especially when she is already pushing convention by asserting herself as a competent hunter?
A hapless maid, who has been dragooned into chaperoning, is seen in the background awkwardly riding sidesaddle. This is a nice touch as maids wouldn’t know the first thing about riding, but no lady of society would want to be Kate’s wingman for such a manly pursuit.
Bridgerton obviously makes a point of not using historically accurate costuming but still attempts to be accurate in most other areas such as manners, etiquette, and scandal. There is no need to use a tired trope of “rebellious woman riding astride during the time of sidesaddles.” Had Kate ridden sidesaddle for the hunt, that would have further established her character as being well-versed in all the nuances of English high society as well as shown how she is also an independent woman. Like corsets being uncomfortable, riding sidesaddle was neither difficult nor lesser than riding astride. In fact, women pushed the development of the sidesaddle so they could go riding with men and not be left behind. By the Regency, women had been riding alongside men in their sidesaddles for well over 200 years. The costumes were so much better this season. Now it’s time to clean up these tired old tropes.
OK then, what tropes bugged you about Bridgerton?
As someone who has conducted a fair amount research on riding sidesaddle, I have to agree wholeheartedly with this. I groaned out loud when I saw the Kate Sharma character riding astride. I charitably assumed she was being portrayed this way because it was early morning and she expected to be unobserved. The hunting party scene, however, was just the nail in the coffin. I have concluded that the actress herself may have refused to ride sidesaddle in her contract. It’s not easy or a lot of fun; I know from experience. I always respect female riders who will attempt it on film, especially when moving faster than a sedate trot.
Sorry to say but this turned me off Kate right from the start…I was not in love with season 2 anyway but this act seemed to “define” her whether it was meant to or not…maybe because I had just re-watched season 1 of Gentleman Jack…it just seemed very unlikely for a future Viscountess…not sure why they went there.
As I understand it sidesaddle is more challenging than asrtride requiring perfect posture and balance. There are male riders who adopt sidesaddle for the challenge of it.
Also nobody put a maid on horseback to ride in a hunt!
Sidesaddle is it’s own thing. You are both more secure if you sit correctly and more unsecure if you are not aligned properly in the saddle. Injured vets, especially ones who had lost a leg, would ride sidesaddle. There are some men who ride sidesaddle today like anyone else – it’s fun, different, and they like it.
I’ll be sure to inform the Khan that you can’t possibly conquer vast swaths of the world from the back of a horse if you’re wearing silk.
I still need to watch, but I am definitely going to miss Simon. Only the Ladies Danbury, Bridgerton and Hastings as well as Penelope and Eloise will be what draws me. I will definitely give Kate the benefit of watching. Wonder what Queen Charlotte will do?
I can sort of understand riding with bunched up petticoats if you’re period is heavy and you want extra leak protection. I imagine there were far more efficient ways of catching blood while exercising, even back then.
Darling, Dearest Delightful Deb!~
You shall always be welcome on the barstool next to me for the artful deployment of the phrase “blown-out hoo-ha.”
In fact, I love that so much, that I shall convene a Courtney Love/B-52’s mash-up cover band and we shall call it that and start it up in my parents’ garage.
(Either that, or it will be the title of my tell-all autobiography)
Whoo hoo(-ha)! I will happily belly up to the bar with you and jam in your parent’s garage.
The tropes in Bridgerton are so numerous. Largely, I guess, because it is based on a series of Regency Romance novels full of tropes and it seems that RR novelists mainly read each other and pay little attention to real history.
The biggest trope of all in Season 1 is yet another Duke (and, of course, one who doesn’t want to get married). What the heck did his father do to earn his title and his wealth? George III created seven new Dukes. Six were the King’s sons and the seventh was the Duke of Wellington who had to beat Napoleon to earn his elevation (and he didn’t get the wealth to go with it)
So far, the biggest trope in Season 2 is the gentleman fighting his attraction to the prickly independent woman with feminist views.
As a hunt seat rider having taken sidesaddle classes, I can easily say riding sidesaddle is extremely difficult! Sitting sideways yet facing the front isn’t only physically difficult at a standstill on a chair for a few hours, doing this at the trot and canter on a horse trying to look elegant is nearly impossible.
I’ve ridden sidesaddle for over 20 years and it’s definitely different, but I don’t find it any more difficult than any other type of riding. You have to have a saddle that is properly fitted to both you and your horse otherwise, you’re correct, it is very difficult to stay balanced. With a properly fitted saddle, ladies can do everything aside such as fox hunting, eventing, barrel racing, dressage, endurance riding, etc. There are loads of examples of these things on the net. The only thing you can’t do is roping as sidesaddles don’t have a horn to tie off your lasso.
Definitely the lead trope is the “Hate to Love” story arc. Which they did in season one, and no doubt will do again. And in my opinion, do really, really badly because nothing is happening to have them change their minds except time. And a bee. Abbie Eammons does a great video about why Pride and Prejudice actually does this well, that illustrates this so clearly. https://youtu.be/nQ-Ua6NYago
You’re right about the main thrust, but I still have to nitpick. You called the prejudice against women riding astride Western, and that is not correct. It was an English idea, that did not get widely exported until the Victorian area.
Yes, continental noblewoman often rode sidesaddle, but they only had to if they planned to visit or ride to church, because you had to wear skirts in a church and a drawing room. These aristocratic women did not wear habits for sporting pursuits, especially not for the socially important and very expensive Parforce hunt – because trying to do that with eighteenth- and early nineteenth century side saddles would absolutely get you killed. These hunts were common all over continental Europe, and noblewoman participated in them eagerly, as a sign of their high status. Only in the UK were these hunts not fashionable.
If you look at eighteenth-century equestrian portraits, you’d see that many noblewoman rich enough to organize their own Parforce hunts have a painting of them astride in trousers.
Here is one of Marie Antoinette: https://www.gettyimages.nl/detail/nieuwsfoto%27s/la-reine-marie-antoinette-1783-equestrian-portrait-of-nieuwsfotos/1137576555
And, of course, Catharine the Great: https://getdailyart.com/22784/vigilius-eriksen/portrait-of-catherine-ii-on-the-back-of-her-horse-brilliant
To show it’s not just monarchs, here is one of an aristocratic abbess: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beckenkamp_-_Equestrian_portrait_of_Maria_Kunigunde_of_Saxony.jpg
It’s frustrating the lack of information about women riding astride during this time period as it seems, as you mention, to be something that only the nobility could get away with. The few accounts I’ve seen do mention that people were astonished to see these women riding astride. For example, Marie Antoinette’s mother admonished her against riding astride and said it was bad for bearing children and later her riding astride was “proof” of her being a power-hungry lesbian.
I have yet to see a fashion plate from this time period of women riding astride or images of non-nobles riding this way. There are also plenty of pictures of women hunting aside in a variety of types of sidesaddles from the chair-like ones of the Renaissance to “true” sidesaddles with a pommel for the right leg. The exhibit catalog for the Met’s Man and the Horse has a whole section on women riding sidesaddle and participating in hunts. It includes both French and German fashion plates of ladies riding aside as well. – https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/Man_and_the_Horse_an_illustrated_history_of_equestrian_apparel
Since Kate is now a viscountess, maybe she is free to ride however she likes, though she would not be free from gossip.
Oh, you are correct about the UK. There absolutely was strong prejudice against riding astride there during the regency there.
if you want to find information about Continental women riding astride, you should probably switch to hunting-related keywords. I have to admit that I have never seen a fashion plate for a hunting costume. Some women may have ordered their coats and trousers at men’s tailors, taking business away from seamstresses
Of course, some continental noblewomen did not care for hunting or were bad at it, and did speak negatively of riding astride.
I thought it weird that Kate first explains that she rides astride in the early morning so no one will see her, which makes sense, and then she does it again at the hunt, in a skirt, ankles showing, which makes no sense at all. Lovely riding habit though! Though overall I was disappointed with season 2 costumes.
when I saw Kate first riding astride, my first thought was “where the heck is her groom?!” why is she alone where she could be attacked, kidnapped, raped, or seen? then why is she wearing a ballgown to go riding first thing in the morning? as far as the hunting, why was she astride if she wanted people to think she was socially acceptable? and flashing thigh? then I watched the rest of the series, noted how far it left the books and was disgusted. no bonnets, just weird fascinators, strange hair, use of modern bras and tap pants, the usual “whinging about corsets by actresses” one even going so far as to complain she had to wear TWO CORSETS!!! I give up. I’ll keep to the books.