Having fun with historical research and 19th century riding habits

19th century riding habitsOkay, full disclosure: I’m a  history nerd.

I was always fascinated in my history classes and majored in it as an undergraduate in college. I’m married to an historian and read (and get roped into translating) more than my fair share of academic books and papers.

When I travel, I drive my kids insane lingering over the museum exhibitions that explain how life was back in a  particular time. I love to imagine myself living back in that time and wonder what it must have been like.

One of the reasons I probably love living in Europe so much is that sense of history that jumps out at you each day from every little town, every cobble stoned path and beautiful church.

So it’s hardly surprising that I like writing historical fiction, or adding historical elements to my contemporary fiction.

19th century riding habitsIn my manuscript, In the Shadow of the Apennines, a modern woman finds the diaries of a young girl who lived in Pescina, Abruzzo,  a town that would be destroyed by a 1915 earthquake.

My current project, Dark Blue Waves, has a modern woman travelling back in time to Bath, England in 1813.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with the research of what life would be like in early 19th century Bath and on a grand manor house. At a certain point in my story, the modern character finds herself in trouble because she does not know how to ride sidesaddle.

I’ve seen riding habits for riding sidesaddle in museums and they’ve always fascinated me. Now I’m having fun poring over drawings of these habits and wondering how on earth women could ride in such saddles, with such cumbersome dresses that they needed to tuck under their legs to ensure that no ankle was displayed and that a female rider appeared suitably elegant.

19th century riding habitsThe famous line from Fred Astair’s dance partner, Ginger Rogers, comes to mind, pointing out that she did everything Fred Astair did but “backwards, and in heels.”

Looking through all these wonderful lithographs, with these elegant ladies and their meters and meters of fabric on their riding habit, I can’t help but be impressed by the so-called ‘weaker sex’.

Not surprisingly, so is the character in my novel. An expert rider herself, she wears the habit, but chooses not to risk life and limb riding sidesaddle. I can hardly blame her!


  1. Catherine on March 8, 2013 at 8:39 am

    I love the Ginger Rogers comment! I think it says so much about the lot of a woman! I love history too – colonialism is my thing and African modern history in particular Xcat

    • kimberlysullivan on March 8, 2013 at 6:29 pm

      Fitting for Women’s Day, Catherine. Ginger Rogers’ comment was supposedly in response to the fact that Fred Astaire always got all the credit. look forward to seeing your interest in colonialism in your new short story collection. When is it out?

      • Catherine on March 12, 2013 at 9:03 am

        It’s been held up by a death in my publisher’s family and now looks like June. I’ve escaped revisions this month but I expect to be tucking in any day now. Will let you know and pop down in May!

  2. ledrakenoir on March 8, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Really a interesting post… 🙂

  3. Chantel Rhondeau on March 8, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    Your love of history definitely shows in your writing with your vivid descriptions and the realistic feel to it all. Absolutely love it!

    Oh, and I could never ride side saddle and think it’s realistic your heroine doesn’t either.

    • kimberlysullivan on March 8, 2013 at 6:31 pm

      Thanks so much, Chantel, for your nice comment and for all the valuable help you provide in improving my drafts! Wow – I agree with you on sidesaddle. I have no idea how those women managed it!

  4. Julia on March 9, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Your passion is contagious. Great post.

    • kimberlysullivan on March 11, 2013 at 8:20 pm

      Thanks, Julia. Does that mean you’re ready to don one of those suicidal riding habits and risk life and limb riding sidesaddle? Some things are better to read about! : )

  5. […] If you missed it, I wrote an earlier piece on researching 19th century riding habits. […]

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