Elegance on horseback: Ladies’ Sidesaddle Attire
“Classy” and “beautiful” were the words that came to mind when I saw my first sidesaddle dress, as modeled by Connie Klauzer of the Frontier Belles Sidesaddle Precision Drill Team (based in Grand Junction, Colo). Copied from an authentic museum piece, the self-sewn, bright red jacket and matching, floor-length skirt gave her a positively regal appearance. The darts in the jacket make it form-fitting and ladylike,” she explained to me. “Darker colors were more common during that era, with blue, black or deep mauve being most frequently chosen. Heavier materials like gabardine or wool were used then, too. Our riding group wears bright colors, though (including stripes, prints and whites) and we prefer polyesters, which are easier to wash.”
The 15 to 18 current members of the club, which was founded in 1957, have performed their galloping charges, crossovers and other precision drills – including jumps – throughout New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. (“Women used to jump gullies and ditches in sidesaddles while doing ranch work,” Connie reminded me.) Riders are not only outfitted in period sidesaddle clothing from the mid-1860s through late 1880s but they also accessorize with gloves, a top hat or derby, old-fashioned boots or shoes, a choker or stock tie, decorative feathers and even brooches. “Whalebone stays were added to make a woman sit up straight, too – although we don’t use them,” she continued with a wry smile, “and the high collars were for protection in winter … plus, back then the ladies needed to be covered up.” Holding both arms out, she demonstrated yet another special feature of her attire: the sleeves were curved, rather than straight, because of rein holding.
It takes approximately five yards of fabric for each outfit, and all materials are purchased through the organization. (In addition to the dresses, the women also make a special form of trousers to wear underneath the skirts.) Elaborate braiding, or cording, can be added for an even more elegant look and of course, everything must be lined, preferably in a “dark, tight weave fabric such as polished cotton, percale, high quality muslin, etc.” according to the instructions for a Corded Jacket by Heidi Marsh (copyright 1987). Even for someone who loves to sew, a sidesaddle dress project most definitely sounds a lot more complicated than merely pulling on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and jumping onto a horse bareback!
The sidesaddle was developed in the latter part of the 16th century as a way to accommodate the long skirts – which made it difficult to ride astride – that were in fashion back then. The riding skirt, which has more length on the right side, can be gathered up when a woman is on the ground. That section is then looped around a button in the back, under the jacket (which is cut longer than a standard English version) thus making it look like she is wearing a bustle. When the rider is seated on her horse, the extra material drapes over the animal’s left side, covering the rider’s knees and ankles. Mounting, I learned, was a trick in itself. Connie, who at one time rode a horse that was 16.2 hands high, said that “First, you have to stand on something, then turn around, and sit down. That helps keep the attire straight. Of course, back in the olden days ladies had grooms for assistance!”
Carefully turning up the ends of her own skirt, Connie showed me the extra-wide hem, which was designed for added weight. Rocks were commonly sewn into the fabric a century ago since they also helped to hold the skirts down – especially during wind. As for Frontier Belle members, they “use elastic loops (to go under the shoe) or pins to attach their skirts to their trousers …” with that, Connie turned up the front corner of her jacket and revealed two, large safety pins for emergency … “because otherwise, it might fly up over the rider’s head, and we certainly wouldn’t want that.”
Because The Frontier Belles are totally self-supporting, paying for all of their own insurance, gasoline, feed and lodging when they travel, as a fund raiser they sponsor the Mesa County Fair Horse Show (held at the Grand Junction fairgrounds) each July. Over the past 54 years, over 200 women have participated in the drill team riding everything from Quarter horses to Arabs to gaited breeds. It’s fun, it’s enjoyable, and it’s highly entertaining for the spectators, so keep an eye out in the Fence Post for the next time that they’re scheduled to perform – it’ll make you feel as if you’ve been transported back in time.
For more information, please contact Connie Klauzer at (970) 243-0591.