Hermès is as focused on the horse as a racing animal wearing blinders is intent on the track. Ménéhould de Bazelaire, director of culture heritage at the house, says the know-how that founder Thierry Hermès and his descendants accrued in making harnesses and saddles for the French carriage trade of yore is invaluable and survives to this day. “A horse is a very demanding customer,” she explains. “We owe everything we have to the horse.”
You might say the same about Polo Ralph Lauren, a label that immediately evokes images of posh riding clubs and aristocratic leisure. “After we were married, Ricky and I were shopping in one of those authentic riding stores, and I bought her a boy’s tweed hacking jacket. Whenever she’d wear it, other women would say, ‘Oh, I love that jacket,’” recalls Ralph Lauren. “That’s when I decided to do women’s clothes. I started with tweed hacking jackets, then shirts and riding pants. I’ve always thought they had real style.”
From his first women’s jodhpurs in 1976 to those legendary polo shirts, touches of equestrian style are a permanent part of Lauren’s vernacular. His Ricky bag was inspired by a vintage saddle carrier, and his new timepiece collection includes watches shaped like stirrups. “There is an attitude and allure that goes beyond fashion,” the designer muses about the equestrian aesthetic, exalting the freedom of riding in the wide-open spaces of his Colorado ranch. “Its history and elegance are very much in keeping with the things that I’ve always loved. There is the style of the cowboy, and there is the style of the English rider. The cowboy is a hardworking horseman, whereas English riding has an aristocratic sensibility, yet they are both part of my world.”
Two examples of 19th-century riding habits will be on display when the exhibition “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” opens in May at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. “It looks like Ralph Lauren when you see it,” curator Andrew Bolton marvels of one ensemble, which consists of a jacket, waistcoat, skirt and britches—the last a potent symbol of female emancipation.
“You have a great pairing of the masculine and the feminine, which I think is very sexy,” notes Janie Bryant, costume designer of Mad Men, who put January Jones’s character, Betty Draper, in fetching jackets and jodhpurs for memorable stable scenes that hinted at the “facade of perfection” of her privileged life.
And an equine motif can be found in the work of a host of designers. Phoebe Philo, a riding enthusiast who put a bronze horse on the glass doors of Chloé boutiques during her tenure there, is now mining the horsey roots of Celine, primarily by exploiting the “mastery of leather” its Florence factory possesses.