You are what you wear …

When I started riding, back in the 1960s, there was a jodhpur hierarchy. And I was at the bottom.

When I started riding, I wore trousers, and when the first heady joy of actually being near a horse had cleared a little, I realised that trousers were not what other people wore.

What other people wore was smooth, fitted jodhpurs. I remember one girl in particular. I, who am utterly hopeless with names, can still remember hers. But let’s call her Merry. Merry wore beautiful fitted fawn jodphurs, and a blue wool riding jacket, and shiny brown jodphur boots and a black velvet hat. And a clean white shirt, and a tie. She looked as if she’d just walked out of the show ring, mixing for just a little while with the mere scruffy mortals who rode in the beginner’s class; her temporary companions.

I can see her before me now, but she soon wafted out of my ken, because she got a pony to go with the riding kit.

Merry was at the absolute top of the jodhpur hierarchy. It was a very early lesson for me that if you spent a lot of money on clothes, there were times it was obvious. Merry’s clothes were not from the saddlery down the road.

Neither were they from the riding stable’s secondhand department.

The great day finally arrived when my mother decided that we weren’t going to give up this riding business in a hurry and my sister and I were ushered into the tack room, and the Holy Box of Secondhand Riding Gear was opened, just for us.

There was nothing there that would fit my sister, and so she was ordered a pair.

There was something to fit me: a khaki pair of elephant ear jodhpurs. I can remember now how it felt as my dream of svelte fitted jodhs crumpled as the riding stable owner held up that baggy pair of elephant ears. She must have had them for years, and probably couldn’t believe her luck as my mother said “They’ll do for Jane.” Oh woe, oh woe, oh misery. If everyone else had been wearing them, I would have been as delighted as Jill in Jill’s Gymkhana was when she got hers, but they weren’t.

In the 1960s, there was a development in riding wear. Fabrics that stretched. Nylon. Endless adverts stressing the incredibly flexible, stretchy nature of their products. I wanted to s-t-r-e-t-c-h with BRI-NYLON.

It wasn’t as if I couldn’t move in my new jodhpurs. The elephant ears weren’t there for decoration: they were a functional development there to allow for movement. In the days of cavalry twill and Bedford cord, without the elephant ears you wouldn’t have moved at all.

Pony Magazine, May 1953

I think mine had probably been expensive once, because I put them through some pretty severe punishment, but they shrugged it all off. I was a very skinny child, so getting them on and off wasn’t a problem, but oh, the horror once they got wet. It was like trying to peel off your own skin.

I’d like to say that my fellow learner riders were sympathetic to my plight in my outdated clothes, but they weren’t. But it didn’t put me off: not that there was some glorious pony-book ending where I rode the pony that no one else could ride and triumphed at the riding school gymkhana, because there wasn’t. I got a white highly commended rosette as I didn’t win anything, and I don’t think I managed to get my pony out of a trot even once. And having the right jodhs would not have made one jot of difference.

After not too long, of course, I grew. Time for a new pair of jodhs. My sister had also grown, and so there we were again, at the Holy Box of Secondhand Riding Gear. AND NOTHING FITTED.

At last. Real jodhpurs would be ours.

But the riding teacher had obviously taken my mother’s measure by then. She happened to have just the thing, she said. They were brand new. They’d been ordered for some other little girls but they hadn’t been quite right. She was about to send them back, but hadn’t got round to it. Here they were, at a discount: riding trousers.

The riding trouser, it turned out, was really a less glamorous cousin of the ski trouser, with an elasicated band under the foot. They had no shape at all. I got off slightly more lightly than my sister, because mine were at least the regulation beige, whereas hers were a deeply unpleasant dung brown.

This time there were two of us in the wrong clothes club. Fortunately for me I was shooting up like a rocket, and soon outgrew them, but my sister remained in the dung brown riding trousers, the elastic stirrups getting more and more stretched, for some time the butt of the mean girls’ teasing.

I can’t remember my next pair of jodhpurs, so I assume they must have been unremarkable and exactly what everyone else wore. It’s the ones that made me not part of the club that I remember most vividly, the ones that made me, with a child’s longing to fit in, not. The ones that made me aware, that to some people, what you wore mattered. The ones that made me appreciate the camouflage of wearing exactly what everyone else did.

But now, if the great day comes when I get back on a horse again, I shall probably do so in deeply unsuitable leggings and not care a fig…

Or I might just fall for the riding tights with their rose-gold zipped phone pocket and their ergonomic gusset (who could resist an ergonomic gusset)?

From my adult distance, I know how lucky I was to be riding in the first place, and to have riding clothes at all. I have never forgotten the sheer joy of being near a horse, and of being given the key to their world. But as an unconfident child, like Jill Crewe when sneered at by Susan Pyke and her cronies for wearing the Wrong Clothes, it mattered.


One response to “You are what you wear …”

  1. Jonathan Hopkins avatar
    Jonathan Hopkins

    This brought back memories. I never had jodhpurs until I was 12 and they, too, were the baggy Royal Flying Corps type, though fortunately re-cut by my mother. At that time rubber riding boots were de-rigeur and getting the sweaty things off a regular nightmare. My second pair of jodhs were made-to-measure, at a time when you could buy such things at a sensible price (from Hebden Cord Co, I think) because I had skinny legs and the extra-thick double seat was great for…well, you know 🙂
    Those were the days…

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