Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: early 18th century Riding Habit stripes

Update:  house tidied, votes tallied, and last weeks chrysanthemum and swags dress came in at 6.8 out of 10, loosing a point for awkward transitions, and lots of points for looking like eyeballs (a resemblance that I can’t see no matter what size I look at the image from, and how much I squint!)

I’ll be coming back tomorrow morning to tally the votes for last weeks Japonisme-inspired ensemble, but I’m afraid I was too busy tonight getting the house ready for guests (why do you always get a spectacularly good evening when you have to vacuum the whole house instead of getting to go for a walk in the actually-balmy weather!).  For now, here is this week’s Rate the Dress for your delectation.

Twenty-year old Henrietta Cavendish Holles, Countess of Oxford and heiress to one of the largest fortunes in England, is depicted in a suitably luxurious and decadent riding habit the year after her marriage to Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford.

Henrietta Cavendish Holles (1694—1755), Countess of Oxford, Godfrey Kneller, 1714

Portraits in riding dress were all the rage in early 18th century England, but Henrietta must have been a keen horsewoman, as one of her few other known portraits depicts her in another riding habit (this one in scarlet) on horseback.  The riding habit emphasises her independence and willpower: she had insisted on marrying Edward against her mothers wishes, with both of them knowing it risked her inheritance.  Luckily for her not only was the marriage happy (probably helped that everyone described her as extremely amiable, kind, and good natured), but her fortune was bestowed after all (also luckily, as Edward managed to run through most of it anyway).  While she may have been amiable and kind, Henrietta was also often described as dull and boring,    so her daughter Margaret, Duchess of Portland, famous intellectual powerhouse, and one of the founders of the Bluestocking Society (aka, seriously amazing woman and one of my heroes), must have gotten her sparkling wit from her politician  father – though both parents were scholars and bibliophiles.

Returning to Henrietta, her  portrait shows a habit that sacrifices no style for practicality: in lustrous blue with either cloth-of-silver or white satin striped accents, it manages to be every bit as decadent as a court dress.  From the tip of her narrow, pointed shoe, to the top of her silver-trimmed tricorne, Henrietta is every inch the heiress and noblewoman.

But is she the fashionista?  Does the habit manage to rise to fabulousness?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10


  1. On the whole I find this stunning. The only quibble I can think of offhand is that I would have preferred the dominant color of the skirt to be the darker one. I have a fondness for this kind of faux-military styling, and I love the simplicity of the stock tie.

    Lovely. 9 of 10

  2. Oh good grief, that IS rather ostentatious, be it cloth-of-silver or cream satin. So flashy! For me, I find this a bit unsubtle, a bit over the top, a bit too showy – and I admit knowing that the wearer was a bit boring herself doesn’t really help. Portraits of this era so rarely do justice to their female sitters, making them look a bit bland, so the clothes are definitely wearing the sitter. I would love to see the woman who could make this look work and avoid being overpowered – I think unfortunately the fashionable powdered hair/grey wig really doesn’t help, as it makes her all look a bit fadeaway and slightly drained of colour, no matter how beautifully cut the habit is and how striking and bold it is.

    It is a wonderfully cut outfit, but I have to rate it 7/10 as the blue and cream/silver leaves me a bit chilly, and it’s really rather ridiculously impractical in its fabric choice, in a way that’s distracting rather than amusingly perverse.

    Mind you, thank goodness she’s not simpering in her shift while lightly clinging something in taffeta that’s either a parachute or a maternity dress for a hippopotamus to her bosom. I deeply despise that genre of c.1700 portraiture.

      • I have fixed it! I wonder if she wasn’t just a bit of an introvert? Those who knew her well spoke extremely highly of her. Lady Mary Wortley Montague was a close friend and a huge fan, and Margaret, Duchess of Portland must have been influenced by her mother as well as her father.

  3. I like it. It strikes a good balance of elegant and ostentatious. I find the cut quite appealing, and it’s flattering. The silver-accented hat tops it off nicely. I’m glad I’m not responsible for keeping it clean though. 9/10

  4. I like the cut of this habit, and even the large buttons, but the striped scheme leaves me very cold. Especially the change in how the stripes run on the jacket as opposed to the skirt. It looks a tad clownish, to me, and a riding habit should never look clownish.

    A 6.5 from me, and only because it *is* a riding habit, and the Countess wears it well in the portrait.

  5. Emelie says

    I don’t care much for it. The peplum is at a really awkward length, as if her jacket has ambitions to be something it never will – a dress. The buttons are overly large and round, something that make them end up as bland-looking. I can’t for the life of me imagine why she left so many of them unbuttoned as this does for a very unattractive fall of the bodice part. The trim of the skirt is simply wrong! I- I cannot say more, I’m speechless!

    The colour combination on the other hand is lovely, and I simply adore the pockets. The stripes of the jacket are neither here nor there though.


  6. Rachel says

    Oooh, that hat. That’s the highlight, for me.

    I like the habit. Blue and white stripes, big ol’ cuffs. Is that a big ol’ pocket on the side of the jacket or just a big ol’ decoration?

    It’s nice, but it doesn’t leave much of a first impression on me.


  7. MayravB says

    OOf, it’s a bit much! On second look, I think if the coat was buttoned and the skirt was a solid colour, I’d like it whole lot better. So, imagining it buttoned up, I’d say,


  8. Sure the general style is fine, but the fabric choices with the blue and cream and stripes. I’m sorry it looks like she didn’t know what to wear and simply threw the closes source of fabric, which included her bedspread and pyjamas to the dresseing lady to fix something up for her.

    I can’t give it anymore than 4/10.

  9. Charlotte says

    I find this habit absolutely horrible! It looks like riding habit inspired pajamas. The jacket’s design elements are a bit over-sized for my taste, but it would be tolerable if only it had a better skirt. The horizontal stripe in the middle with the gathering looks like the pucker of a mouth, lips firmly pressed closed in disapproval of its own awkward placement. She has another portrait in a cream habit of this style, “Lady Henrietta Cavendish, Lady Huntington by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1715-18” which does it much better with a thin horizontal skirt stripe and a less fussy jacket. It looks like her friends gave her some much needed fashion advise. This habit receives a 4/10 from me.

      • Charlotte says

        I thought they might be! That’s what I get for posting at work 🙂 I was glad to find another habit in the same style though, since I am unfamiliar with habits of the time period. It makes it easier to critique without modern bias creeping in.

  10. I don’t rightly know what to think of it, because I’m realising it’s the first riding habit from early 18th century I’ve seen. So I’m still trying to make sense of that.
    I feel like the masculine is strong in this one, despite the skirt. And it really is a rather awkward skirt. I quite like the jacket, but the skirt brings the overall impression down. 6/10?
    (What I like most is the shirt. It’s doing its job well.)

  11. Ehhhhh. Normally I love blue and silver together, but this one isn’t doing it for me. I think I’d like it a lot more if the skirt were the solid blue of the jacket, with no stripes. That horizontal stripe on the skirt just looks awkward to me.


  12. LOL…I feel I’m showing some ignorance here, because when I first saw the portrait, knowing nothing about any of it, I thought, ‘Now THAT’S a confident woman!’ The pose with the crop, the erect posture…and the bold features on her outfit. I can’t imagine someone shy and retiring wearing it, especially as she’s styled it, with the jacket open. Hard to believe the lady featured was…boring. But neither can I imagine keeping such a garment clean on a damp ride through the woods. For purely illogical reasons, I’m giving it an 8/10…lose points for practicality but gain points because she looks so sure of herself wearing it.

  13. LoriWatk says

    I’m going to give it an 7 of 10. I don’t like the stripes or the skirt. The skirt doesn’t work for me at all!

    • LoriWatk says

      I looked up the other riding habit, the maroon one. I hate reds but love the maroon one so much more.

  14. I’ve gone ooooh, yech, oooh, yech, oooh over this. Trying to work out why I can’t like it even if I kind of do. I’ve worked out that I like the cut and he overall shape and idea of it – I thought I disliked the oversized cuffs and pockets but actually it’s not that, it’s the overactive use of contrasts. Too many concentric stripes, vertical stripes, horizontal stripes. SO MANY STRIPES.
    As a card carrying foundation member of the International Society of Maximalists, eve I can’t handle it. So, I am giving it a 7.

  15. Buttercup says

    This portrait just screams “I’ve got money!” She is very posh looking and I agree with an earlier comment saying she looks confident. I don’t think its a particularly nice looking riding habit or that it would be comfortable to wear. It also seems to have a double serving of cuffs on the sleeves. I’m giving it 4/10 and thats mainly because at first glance I thought it was a man wearing an ugly dress which seemed rather novel.

  16. Grace Darling says

    I feel sorry for the horse with that on it’s back. Must have been the
    laughing stock of the stables.


  17. Hawke says

    8 – I love the cut and the stripes, but the hat doesn’t really match and going for a ride in silver satin just seems like asking for stains. I like the blue, but….no, the whole thing is too pale for a riding habit in my opinion. Other than that my only quibble with the dress itself is I don’t like that they chose to leave the jacket open for the portrait – it looks rather baggy this way.

  18. First thoughts: I *love* the androgynousness of it all – as someone else said, much more overtly masculine than the riding habits of a few decades later.

    On closer viewing: I agree, the skirt really isn’t amazing … should have been blue with silver accents, should *not* have that horrid puckered line running through the blue stripe.


  19. Julia Ergane says

    I only dislike the skirt because of the horrible seam in the middle of the stripe. She should be wearing a solid colour skirt instead. The jacket is exactly like a man’s jacket from that same period. (He would probably have had narrowly, vertically striped or solid colour knee length breeches.) My rating 8/10

Comments are closed.