Tuesday, February 3, 2015

“Cuando montaban á caballo . . .” Women’s Riding Dress in Mexican California


California during the Mexican era (1822-1847) was famous for its horsemen, but it's less well known that many Californo women also rode.  Often, the woman was placed in the saddle while the man rode pillion behind. A painting made in Monterey shows a typical couple, with the young woman sitting on the saddle while facing the right hand, or "off side" of the horse, and the man rides behind her on a half moon shaped piece of leather called the anquerita.  


But an unknown number of Californio women also rode by themselves and several foreign observers were impressed by their skill and daring as horsewomen.  Normally, they rode sidesaddle.  The French diplomat Eugène Duflot de Mofras, who was in California in the early-1840s wrote, “Men’s saddles are used by the women but are so arranged that a longer stirrup, attached by means of a strap to the pommel of the saddle, is available for the left foot.”  To use this, the woman would have to ride facing to the right, unlike a modern sidesaddle, where the rider faces to her left.  It's hard to know how many Californian women rode astride, or on what occasions, but the American sea captain Benjamin Morrell wrote after a visit to San Diego  in 1825,

The females have generally fine forms, and expressive countenances . . . They also delight in equestrian exercises, and usually honour each side of the horse with a beautiful little foot and ankle.


Our best descriptions of women’s riding dress come from the Californios themselves.  Interviewed late in life, they remembered the clothing of their youths with remarkable clarity.  Estévan de la Torre recalled that when a woman dressed for horseback riding in the 1820s, she wore, “A type of short coat buttoned as high as the throat . . . it was of silk, nankeen or some sort of dark cotton, according to means, adorned with colored ribbons.”  

All observers, both native and foreign, agreed that the only time a Californian woman wore a hat was on horseback, probably because she could not handle both her ever-present shawl and the reins at the same time. De la Torre remembered seeing horsewomen in the 1820s wearing a kind of top hat, “very tall in height; less than two inches of brim, wider above than below.”  Beneath this hat was draped a handkerchief, “embroidered with colored silk which covered the back, front, part of the cheeks, and came together beneath the chin where it was fastened with a pin.”

Santa Barbara native Angustias de la Guerra de Ord also described this handkerchief, which she called a “sun cloth,” (paño del sol).

[T]his was pinned under the chin and on the back it reached as far as the waist.  Everybody wore these but those who had the means had them of linen very fancily embroidered with colored silks and scalloped all around.  Over this cloth they would put their hats.

Duflot de Mofras, describing Californio women's clothing, wrote that,

Hats, which are extremely large, are worn only when riding on horseback . . . When a man and woman mount the same horse, the escort rides behind, holding his companion in front of him. To protect her head from the sun, the woman wears the caballero’s hat, while the man wraps a handkerchief around his own head.


On horseback, and on other occasions when they needed their hands free, such as dancing, Californian women tied their shawls across the body.


The riding dress and methods of Californio women originated in Spanish Mexico and were probably similar in Hispanic communities in the American Southwest and Texas as well.

A. Though painted in 1849, after the American Conquest, this detail from Alfred Sully's "Monterey, California Rancho Scene" shows the clothing and riding methods of the Californios unchanged from the Mexican era. Notice the woman considerately brought her own hat, a glazed sombrero lined under the brim with silk, rather than wearing her companion's.  Instead of a short jacket, she wears a dress and has her shawl tied across her torso from right to left.  She sits facing to her right, while her companion rides behind on the anquerita.  Oakland Museum of California.

B. This view of a Californio woman, c. 1842, dressed for riding shows her with the sun cloth draped over her head and covering much of her torso.  We can see that she has her veiled hat in one  hand and a braided rawhide quirt in the other and she's lifted her petticoats to reveal leather leggings (botas de talon) and shoes. Painting by G.M. Waseurtz af Sandels, from A Sojourn in California by the King's Orphan, (San Francisco: Society of California Pioneers, 1945). 

C. California's riding traditions came from New Spain, later called Mexico.  This lithograph, drawn from sketches made c. 1830 show the woman rider facing to the right and wearing a bodice over her chemise, her shawl tied across her torso.  "El Hacendero y su Mayordomo," by Carl Nebel, c. 1830.  From, Voyage pittoresque . . . du Mexique, (Paris, 1836).  Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nebel_Voyage_11_Hacendero.jpg

D. Don Antonio Coronel, who came to California in 1834, dances with his wife, Doña Mariana in the late-19th century.  Both are dressed in clothing either from the Mexican era or made by them in the style of that earlier era.  Notice that dancing was another occasion on which the lady tied her shawl across her body.  Southwest Museum, Pasadena, California.

E. Another picture of Mexicans practicing some of the same kinds of riding and clothing traditions that were seen in California and probably the Hispanic Southwest and Texas. Notice that the woman rides on the saddle, facing to her right, while the man sits behind.  Again, this is the only time a woman in these societies would wear a hat.  From Claudio Linati's Costumes civilsmilitaires et réligieux du Mexique (Paris, 1828). Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudio_Linati

Duflot de Mofras, Eugène. Exploration du Territoire de L’Oregon, des Californies et de la Mer Vermeille, Exécutée Pendant les Années 1840, 1841 et 1842 . . . Paris: Libraire de la Société de Géographie, 1844.

Morrell, Benjamin. A Narrative of Four Voyages: To the South Sea, North and South Pacific Ocean, Chinese Sea, and Southern Atlantic Ocean, Indian and Antarctic Ocean. From the Year 1822 to 1831 . . . New York: J.&J. Harper, 1832. 

Ord, Angustias de la Guerra. “Recuerdos,” in Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 1815 –1848. Translated and edited by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz Berkeley, California: Heyday Books and The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2006.

Torre, Estévan de la.  “Reminiscencias de Estévan de la Torre. Dictadas por él en
la ciudad de Monterey . . .” 1877. Manuscript, Bancroft Library, University of
California, Berkeley.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi it's me again; I having trouble trying to translate the word "chupín" can you help translate it? I have a document of Mexican Colonial uniforms if your interested tell me.

    1. I'm sorry not to have seen your comment. Yes, a chupin was a sleeved waistcoat, what we would probably call a jacket but generally a little longer than a "chaqueta." Clothing terms are generally rather flexible, though. I'm interested in seeing the document so please send it if you're still willing.