If dog is man’s best friend, the horse is surely his life partner. So close is the connection between humans and horses that the changing role and representation of the horse from the Middle Ages into modernity reveals much about the development of our society and culture. The story is not necessarily a happy one, for whilst the horse is still largely perceived as elegant and noble – aside from those occasions when it holds up traffic – people associated with equestrian pursuits tend to be perceived negatively; social stereotypes of jockeys, race goers and horse riders are rarely pleasant. It is particularly interesting, then, although not necessarily surprisingly, that changing attitudes towards the horse have done much to shape the luxury fashion industry.
Motor sport aficionados will talk feverishly about horsepower to anyone foolish enough to listen, but in the past this had real significance. In agriculture and industry, horses helped man to harness resources with ease and efficiency, pulling ploughs and powering threshing machines. In warfare, horses helped man to defend his resources, or, if on the offensive, to acquire territories to gain more. Economically and militarily valuable, the horse was commensurately important in displaying the status of man. The versatility of the horse was such that it enabled him to play as hard as it helped him to work and war. Equestrian leisure activities, most notably the tourney and hunting, were prohibitively expensive and correspondingly exclusive. Participants were limited to members of the nobility, who had access to credit.
But things were to change. The advent of industrialisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries profoundly altered the horse’s role in society. Retired from work, for it was now too inefficient to complete with mechanised and steam-powered processes, the horse retained its role in the sphere of entertainment and became, over the next two centuries, the pre-eminent signifier of prestige and wealth. Whilst it continued to carry officers across battlefields and parade grounds, a role it has not entirely lost today, the horse now pulled the elite in carriages, which new technologies made faster and more luxuriously furnished. The horse also became the star attraction at formalised race meetings. Horse racing dates back to antiquity, but the modern rules of the sport, as observed in Britain, were established in the eighteenth century following the establishment of the Jockey Club in 1750. Across the Atlantic, the publication of the first American Stud Book in 1868 precipitated the formal regulation of the sport in North America. The change in the horse’s role is remarked upon by Thorstein Veblen, a nineteenth-century social critic whose seminal work The Theory of the Leisure Class did much to denigrate the rich as idle and profligate. No longer a valuable current asset, the horse – along with the dog – was deemed ‘expensive, or wasteful and useless – for the industrial purpose.’[i] It had become a prop for the rich to showcase their wealth, an object to buy or bet on.
The utility of the fast horse lies largely in his efficiency as a means of emulation; it gratifies the owner’s sense of aggression and dominance to have his own horse outstrip his neighbour’s.[ii]
To supply the burgeoning demand for horse paraphernalia, saddlery companies, some of today’s most prestigious luxury brands, set-up shop. Dunhill is typically associated with automobile accessories, but it traded as a saddlery firm before Alfred Dunhill succeeded his father in 1893. In Paris, Hermès opened its doors in 1837. Many of Savile Row’s tailoring ﬁrms were established during the same century to equip riders with the necessary clothes and riding kit. Huntsman began trading in 1809 as a maker of gaiters & breeches.[iii] Dege & Skinner, one of the few tailors along the Row to remain in family hands, started trading in 1880; Jacob Dege, one of the founding partners, had worked from premises along Conduit Street since 1865.[iv] Kilgour, which has become the sartorial antithesis of Savile Row since beginning its association with Carlo Brandelli in 2003, opened its doors in 1882, trading as Kilgour, French & Stanbury.[v]
Between the nineteenth century and today, the connection between horses and heritage, leisure and luxury, has increased in tandem with people’s disposable income. It was during this period that the seemingly odd connection between the stables and style was firmly established. In 1953, Gucci launched its horse bit loafer. The iconic design – the loafer was added to the Metropolitan Museum of New York’s permanent collection in 1980 – has spawned many derivatives; earlier this year, the Italian luxury brand launched a jewellery collection based on the interconnecting brass links. In 1967, the Ralph Lauren clothing colossus launched with its ﬂagship brand, Ralph Lauren Polo, which featured a horse and polo player as its logo.
Fashion companies have been shrewd, and successful, in using the horse as a symbol of distinction because of its strong associations with leisure, particularly horse racing, which has long been considered the sport of kings. Today, horse racing is one of the few widely accessible leisure activities that segregate on the basis of sartorial preference. Last year, certain race goers at Newbury’s November race meet were caught unawares by new regulations prohibiting denim from the premier enclosure, even if it were worn by racehorse owners. Appropriately – if, perhaps, somewhat uncharitably – the event organisers had arranged for tailors from Regent Tailoring to dispense sartorial advice from a newly conceived leisure marquee. Challenged, resented and tweeted about, this sartorial edict was really no more fastidious than that of other courses. It is certainly a far cry from the exacting sartorial standards of one racings most famous meets. Since the reign of Edward VII, Royal Ascot has provided an almost unique opportunity for men and women, from a variety of backgrounds, to dress extravagantly.
Sir Cecil Beaton’s beautifully conceived ‘Ascot scene’ in My Fair Lady is justly famous for demonstrating how the social prestige of the horse has, by degrees, been harnessed by fashion houses to make their products more purchasable. As brands seek to profit from the increasing number of people who want to flaunt their wealth, equestrian fashion has become ubiquitous on the catwalk. The profusion of tweed, tailored jackets and riding boots give brands distinction and appeal, a cachet that is bestowed on consumers after purchase.
Now a symbol of luxury, even excess, the horse has come a long way from its ploughing days. Its acquisition by elites reveals much about the changing structures and values of society. In particular, it highlights how the advent of mechanisation has enabled many more people to seek membership among Thorstein Veblen’s Leisure Class, a group who demonstrate the strength of their social position through the display of conspicuous consumption of socially prized resources, not least time and money. If Mark Twain was right to proclaim that clothes make the man, what better way to assert one’s social position and prestige than to invoke the horse through what we wear?
[i] T. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (Oxford, 1997), 95.
[ii] Ibid., 96.
[iii] J. Sherwood, Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke (London, 2010), 62.
[iv] Ibid., 114-16.
[v] J. Davis, ‘The Modernist: Carlo Brandelli returns to Savile Row’, Esquire: The Big Black Book, 3 (2014), 58.