The history of archery attire

What to wear on the shooting line? Something fashionable, of course. By Jan H Sachers. 

La Belle Assemblée was an early British women’s magazine published from 1806 until 1837, when it was merged with the Lady’s Magazine and Museum. and continued as The Court Magazine and Monthly Critic. From its earliest days it contained poetry, short stories and serialised novels, commentaries on politics and science, and book and theatre reviews. 

From the 1820s on its editors focused more on matters of good housekeeping as well as the latest trends from the world of fashion. Today, La Belle Assemblée, or Bells Court and Fashionable Magazine, its full title from 1823 onward, is valued for its countless, often colourised engravings, offering – apart from sheet music and sewing patterns – a panoramic impression of fashion ideas from Regency era Britain.

Vol XIV No 81 from September 1831 contains an essay on archery, its historical and cultural value for Britain, and its merits as an honest, decent and healthy pastime for ladies of the upper classes. This bears some significance since female archers were far from common at this time. 

Archery in England declined during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15), and most of the few remaining archery societies in the 1820s and 1830s did not accept women as active members. Only under the patronage of King William IV (reigned 1830–37) and Queen Victoria (reigned 1837–1901) did recreational archery enjoy another revival that also benefitted women.

The two archery dresses from La Belle Assemblée XIV/81 (1831), table 2.

Shooting in style

Under the headline ‘Fashion for September, 1831’ on page 118, said volume of La Belle Assemblée presents two ‘Archery Dresses’, which are depicted in a colourised engraving (fig 1). Funnily, the description places the first archers ‘brace’, or arm guard, ‘upon the right arm’, while the image clearly, and correctly, shows it on the left arm. 

On page 119, under ‘General Observations on FASHIONS AND DRESS’ we read: “That truly English pastime, archery, the delight of our forefathers and foremothers (no cavilling, good reader – we insist upon our right to coin a word now and then), is once more become fashionable, and we hasten to present our fair readers with two dresses equally elegant and appropriate for that healthful and delightful amusement.”

The garments are described as follows:

First Archery Dress 

A dress composed of changeable gros de Naples, green shot with white. The corsage, made nearly, but not quite, up to the throat, fastens in front by a row of gold buttons, which are continued at regular distances from the waist to the bottom of the skirt. The corsage sits close to the shape. The upper part of the sleeve forms a double bouffant, but much smaller than is usually worn. This is a matter of necessity, as the fair archer would otherwise cut it in pieces in drawing her bow. 

The remainder of the sleeve sits close to the arm. The brace, placed upon the right [sic!] arm, is of primrose kid to correspond with the gloves. The belt fastens with a gold buckle; on the right [sic!] side is a green worsted tassel used to wipe the arrow; a green watered ribbon sustains the petite poche, which holds the arrows on the left [sic!] side. A lace collar, of the pelerine shape, falls over the upper part of the bust.

White gros des Indes hat, with a round and rather large brim, edged with a green rouleau, and turned up by a gold button and loop. A plume of white ostrich feathers is attached by a knot of green ribbon to the front of the crown. The feathers droop in different directions over the brim. The half boots are of green reps silk, tipped with black.

Second Archery Dress

A dress composed of white chaly, with a canezou of blue gros de Naples. The front of the bust is ornamented in the hussar style, with white silk braiding and fancy silk buttons; plain tight back. Long sleeves sitting close to the arm, with a half sleeve, à l’Espagnol, slashed with white figured gros de Naples. A row of rich white silk fringe is brought from the point of each shoulder in front round the back.

Collerette of white tulle, of a novel form, fastened in front by a gold and pearl brooch. The belt fastens with a silver buckle curiously wrought; the accessories correspond in colour with the canezou. White gros de Naples hat, ornamented with white ostrich feathers, and a gold button and loop. Half boots of blue kid.

Regency standards 

While the practicality of such attire may be highly suspect from a modern point of view, there can be little doubt as to its elegance, and of course adherence to Regency era moral standards of female decency. Many activities practised commonly by men – at least of a certain level of means, and social standing – were entirely off limits to women, including, but not limited to, all kinds of ball games, tennis, golf, swimming, billiards, and many more.

As G H Hansard put it in his Book of Archery (1841): “Our system of female education, from the beginning of the 17th until nearly the close of the 18th century, was a positive conspiracy against the moral and physical development of the sex.”

Archery was one of the few physical activities considered suitable for women in the 19th century, being both healthy and decent or, as described in the Young Lady’s Book (1829): “The attitude of an accomplished female archer… bending the bow is particularly graceful; all the actions and positions tend at once to produce a proper degree of strength in the limbs, and to impart a general elegance to the deportment.” 

The famous and successful archer Alice B Legh, in her contribution to the archery volume of the ‘Badminton Library of Sports’ (1894) pointed out: “No hurried movements or violent exertion, no ungraceful attitudes or contortions, are necessary; it need never be anything but quiet, graceful, and ladylike.” And also: “that good dressing and good shooting go very well together”. 

Even Horace A Ford, the most successful archer of his time, in 1859 felt the need to add ‘A Short Address to the Fair Sex’ to the end of this book Archery, its Theory and Practice, in which he, too, sings the praises of archery as a healthy exercise for both the female body, and mind: “Your sex have few outdoor exercises at all – none, with the exception, perhaps, of riding (which is accessible but to few), that at all brings the muscles generally into healthy action.

“You cannot say that mere walking or shop-lounging does this; still less that the heated atmosphere of a ballroom allows of it. But archery does. How many consumptions, contracted chests and the like, think you, might have been spared, had its practice been more universal amongst you?

“It is an exercise admirably suited to meet your requirements – general and equal, without being violent – calling the faculties, both of mind and body, into gentle and healthy play, yet oppressing none – bringing roses to your cheeks, and occupation to your mind – withal most elegant and graceful.”

While all the authors cited emphasise the health benefits to be gained from archery, none of them fails to point out other important factors that were probably even more instrumental in making it an acceptable pastime for women: No ‘violent exertions’, no sweat, no running, no shouting, no heavy breathing; but quiet, gentle, fluid motions, or in a word not coincidentally used in all the above citations: ‘graceful’.

The Fair Toxophilites, painting by William Powell Frith (1872), Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Hence, extravagant and impractical as they may appear from our modern perspective, the ‘archery dresses’ presented in La Belle Assemblée were first and foremost expression of the sense of fashion, decency and moralities of their time. And they were certainly not the only ones, not by a long shot. For example, equally glamorously clad female archers can be admired in William Powell Frith’s famous painting The Fair Toxophilites (1872), in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (fig 2).

Times have changed, and fashions, morals and social conventions with them. Archery has long become an equal opportunities sport, thanks no doubt to a number of pioneering ladies in the 19th century and after (see Bow International issue 106). Rules for dressing in public are considerably less strict nowadays, and rightfully so. 

But looking at the ubiquitous sponsor T-shirts, shorts and baseball caps at any shooting line around the world today, one wonders if we shouldn’t strive to bring some fashion and style back into this healthy and graceful pastime.

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