Earlier this year I drove up to Leicestershire to watch 14 of the equestrian world’s most fearless women race sidesaddle across muddy ground and over daunting hedgerows. The event was The Dianas of the Chase, a steeplechase where the immaculately dressed riders – some of whom had flown in from the Continent for the occasion – were all wearing traditional habits: tailored jackets and “aprons”, which give the illusion of a full skirt without the risk of getting dragged across the pommel. The dramatic effect of their costume was entirely appropriate for such an extraordinary spectacle.
Among the onlookers was Lady Martha Sitwell, accomplished horsewoman and founder of habit-design company Sitwell and Whippet. I wanted to know more about the creative process behind such unique garments. “I design at home on inclement days in front of a crackling fire and episodes of Poirot or Jeeves and Wooster,” Martha explained. “My habits [price on request] are a mishmash of periods, incorporating a tight Victorian-inspired waist and ‘leg o’ mutton’ sleeves to give unrestricted movement, but also to complement one’s waist. Once I’m happy with a design, I take it to a tailor where we will make a calico and the final adjustments to the pattern.”
As each design is tailor-made for the client, it can be created in any fabric, although the preferred material is a Melton wool, or a tweed, which is more practical for hunting. Martha is keen to develop a full range of country attire – and more – in the future. “I would love to be able to expand Sitwell and Whippet and design clothes for shooting, fishing and stalking too. Suits, gloves and furs for every occasion – everything one needs to cut a dash from seaside cottage or glided country house to touring India or the Riviera.”
By her own admission, Martha’s style inspirations are a little erratic, ranging from “Somerset farmers and batty old ladies” to Grace Kelly, Napoleon and the Mitford sisters. Beyond these icons, Martha explains that her most constant and treasured inspiration was her sister Polly de Blank: “She just had ‘it’. Polly pushed the boundaries and always got it just the right side of slightly kooky.” Polly, a former BBC journalist and documentary-maker, passed away last year and Martha, along with her younger sister Clementine and son Conor, are currently trekking across Mongolia on horseback – Martha riding sidesaddle – in honour of Polly’s memory and to raise money for the charity Mind.
After their arrival in Ulaanbaatar on August 1, the riders met their horses and wranglers. Martha is responsible for breaking in two of the horses in order for them to be ridden sidesaddle. Their objective is to reach the Russian border before the end of the month: a solid itinerary of riding during daylight hours and camping at night. One can only wonder what the locals will make of such a curiously attired young woman riding sidesaddle across the Mongol Steppe.
Martha’s equestrian heroines include Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, and Skittles, one of the great beauties of the Victorian era, who would draw crowds as she rode through Hyde Park. Such impeccably dressed horsewomen would have surely made grand companions on such a trek.