Aside World Magazine
Fall 2020 Issue
LeAmazones in New York City
Article by Pat Blaire
The picture by Maurice Pendergast is public domain and the newspaper images are from Newspapers.com
Today most people consider riding side saddle to be something of a novelty, so it’s hard to imagine when women riding aside was the norm. It’s even harder to imagine that New York City was a center for side saddle culture and fashion. In the years between the Civil War and First World War the city was home to America’s elite style setters who had the time and money to devote to both horses and fashion.
In the eras when young women aspired to a career as the wife of a wealthy and possibly titled gentleman, training for daughters of the most affluent classes included learning how to ride like a lady. And there was no question or argument about side saddle being the only riding option for ladies. This led to a new business that catered to New York’s richest equestrians.
Shortly after the Civil War, riding academies sprouted up on the streets surrounding New York City’s Central Park. These elegant establishments offered “ladies only” lessons taught by some of the top female instructors of their day. Classes were designed to not only teach sidesaddle riding skills and etiquette, but guaranteed to be held in a proper atmosphere to protect reputations of the students. The largest schools even had their male grooms wear uniforms so when chaperoning female students during rides in the park, the lady could not be accused of illicit assignations.
These riding schools grew in popularity to become major social centers for several decades. Large arenas were busy all day and evening with group and private lessons of all levels. For gentlemen the academies had polo clubs, Roman riding and drill teams. Musical rides were a popular coed entertainment in the evenings and extravagant horse shows and riding demonstrations were events that rivaled theater attendance in numbers. The biggest equestrian stars of the era included Belle Beach and La Belle Titcomb, who both rode in competitions and equestrian extravaganzas at the most elite establishments.
The largest stables were multi storied with ramps to move horses from stalls to arenas on the different levels. Their amenities included club rooms, smoking rooms, locker rooms with showers, lounges and valet service. The riding arenas with tanbark footing were large enough to take up a whole floor, had windows, skylights, private boxes and audience seating for hundreds of people.
One of the largest and most popular establishments was Durand’s Riding Academy at Central Park West and 66th Street where board in 1915 was $35/month for a straight stall or $45/month for a box stall (equivalent to $890 and $1145 in 2020). The Tichenor-Grand Academy had a seven-story building topped by a glass enclosed roof garden with luxury seats and boxes surrounding an arena that was as big as Madison Square Garden’s. The arena could accommodate large teams and wagons which were brought from the stalls on the lower floors by modern service elevators.
Equestrian sports had their own set of fashion rules that were never broken by anyone who wanted to avoid scandal and censure in the newspaper gossip columns. Riding habits were only worn while working with horses and never worn to shops or cafes. Riding academies had strict dress codes which required formal attire at all times. Whipcord or Melton fabrics in black, navy or deep green for habits paired with top hats or derbies were the only acceptable choices. The newest fad of “sailor hats” (straw boaters) was very popular for young ladies but was only allowed for rides in the park.
By 1904 the “Athletic Girl” was all the rage and young equestrians were slyly introducing new fashion ideas to the academy arenas. While the new split skirts and breeches were absolutely forbidden at every riding school, the old-fashioned side saddle skirts were being switched out for the shorter, modern safety skirt. Young ladies were opting to wear their skirts so short as to barely graze the top of the boot. Dowdy longer skirts covering the boot were considered an out of date, matronly style. Comfortable undergarments were also a revolutionary idea adopted by young riders. Grandmother’s hot riding corset was replaced by a lightweight, silk ribbon corset and her baggy, thick riding trousers with lightweight silk breeches. Next came the absolutely fashionable black patent or enamel boots with two-inch Cuban heels and rounded toes.
While riding apparel could be purchased ready made from Macy’s, Sears or Montgomery Wards, the upper classes usually had their equestrian clothing custom made either in New York or Europe. Lord and Taylor’s shop on Broadway even had a life-sized horse figure for the customer to sit on so that the skirt could be perfectly tailored to each customer.
New York’s Central Park was the place to see and be seen. When the summer season ended and society’s elite came home to the city, the daily ritual of showing off horses and habits returned to the bridal paths of the city’s center. The newspapers followed every new fashion and romance of the ladies in their sidesaddles. European fashions such as bobbed tails on horses and tricorn hats on riders were the talk of the town. And who was seen with whom was featured in full page articles surrounded by photos and advertisements of sidesaddle fashion and events.
Newspapers noted that groups of fashionably dressed Amazones filled Central Park every weekday morning. Reporters were sent to stake out the favorite bridlepaths hoping for a glimpse or interview with a socialite or two. Those in the well-known social sets made it a ritual to ride at the same time each day so they could show off their newest horse or habit to the waiting photographers.
Park bridal paths ran parallel to the driving and strolling paths which all were crowded every weekend. On Sundays, wearing their latest fashion ensembles, ladies switched from riding to joining their husbands in showing off expensive carriages pulled by the finest teams money could buy. A spectacle which was a favorite subject of impressionist painter Maurice Pendergast and captured in his 1900 painting, Central Park.
End of An Era
The heyday of sidesaddle culture in New York City started its decline after the Great War. The debate on the health and safety of ladies riding side saddle vs “cross saddles” bad been going on since the 1890s and riding astride like the cowgirls of the West became increasingly acceptable. Sporty astride riding clothes began appearing alongside formal sidesaddle habits in newspaper advertisements. In the early 1920s Madge Bellamy and Coco Chanel in jodhpurs appeared in film and print resulting in their fans striving to look and ride like their idols.
Another death blow to the sidesaddle riding culture came from the increasing popularity of automobiles. Going motoring rapidly took the place of the horseback ride in the park. Riding academies began to transition into skating rinks and auto garages, some being torn down to be replaced by high rises and theaters. A few of the more exclusive establishments remained in business through the 1920s, continuing to offer shows and lessons for the wealthy customers who clung to tradition. Many began to rely on the horse broker side of their business for the main source of their income as the horse set was now driving their cars to stables and equestrian facilities outside of the city.
England’s royalty did not part with the sidesaddle as quickly as the Americans so sidesaddles and formal habits could still be found in the better shops for ladies traveling abroad. But by the beginning of the 1930s American women preferred the astride saddle and the fashions that went with it. Thick sweaters or tweed jackets in rusts and blues were paired with breeches and a jaunty cloche hat for casual rides. Jodhpurs with jackets were the order of the day for showing. The side saddles and their formal habits were saved for summers in Europe or stored away.
The side saddle rapidly became a novelty and the technique and culture of riding aside forgotten. In the early 1930s there were still a few side saddles classes in shows on the East Coast and a few matrons who refused to switch to astride. But by 1940 a newspaper search for “side saddle” brings up only ads for black and white saddle shoes or a new draping in short dresses called “the side saddle”. The last of the riding academies on New York’s 66th Street was bought by a television studio in 1951 and only one or two of the old riding establishments remained near Central Park. The days of elegant ladies in top hats riding aside in New York were forgotten and their pictures relegated to the newspaper’s basement archives.
Thank you Pat!
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