Tradition Rides High in Designer Concepts of Equestrian Elegance

Times Staff Writer

The equestrian look has become a habit again. And you don't even need a horse to carry it off.

Thanks, in large part, goes to Diana Vreeland, the New York fashion doyenne who conceived the "Man and the Horse" exhibit dedicated to the equestrian culture and all its tailored glory at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (through Sept. 1).

Last year, Vreeland devoted an entire show to Paris designer Yves Saint Laurent, but this year it's the horsey set whose members, she says, have mastered the art of "dressing down to perfection."

No one seems to savor that dress code more than designer Ralph Lauren, who also underwrote the exhibit. Last month, Lauren trotted out derbies, frock coats, hacking jackets and jodhpurs in his fall collection and made them look new again, even though they aren't that much different from those worn at fashionable hunts 150 years ago in the British countryside.

On or off a runway, the uniform is rooted in tradition. Not even Ralph Lauren can do much to improve upon a jodhpur. Certain details may vary, but essentially the lookremains--well, horsey.

The same is true in the bona fide horse world. Jacket vents may be single one year, double the next. Black boots may be popular one year, brown boots the year after. (Right now, brown is "very out," says Don Burt, Western states vice president of the American Horse Shows Assn.) But essentially the credo is: The more classic the better.

"Equestrian styles will change," points out John Quirk, editor and publisher of Horses magazine, "but they change about as slowly as naval officer uniforms."

Above all, correct equestrian attire is about elegance--perfect tailoring, polished leathers, subdued colors, rich fabrics, gleaming metal and subtle insignias.

Quirk calls it the "Eastern coupon-clipping" look. Meaning: old money . . . slightly rumpled . . . a world in which bright colors are not considered "tasteful."

Today, the genuine articles are best displayed in the show ring, where the criteria for dress are written in a rule book. As befitting the sport, the desired effect is one that's "dignified--you could even call it businesslike," Burt says.

That may explain why equestrian attire is fashionable once again.

"We've been doing simple, tailored clothes for years," Burt says. "Tradition was before and tradition is now."

That's how the equestrians photographed here feel too.

They may appear mild-mannered, even quite ordinary, from Monday through Friday when they're at work dressed in their business suits or at the grocery store wearing their Guess? jeans.

But when they head off to "horse country"--from the canyons of Malibu to the flat lands of Burbank--and squeeze into their breeches and boots, they are suddenly transformed into so many lords and ladies of the hunt.

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