Women and carriages

Women were the first to enjoy the comfort and luxury of carriages. Charming in their novelty, these machines provided the convenience of travelling without tiring. Above all, they offered ladies the advantage of appearing dressed in their finery as if in a painting. The Duchess of Orleans's "chariot branlant" [suspended carriage] in 1396 and that of Isabeau of Bavaria in 1405 are among the oldest known carriages. Even up into the 16th century, women were the only ones to use carriages, except for a few elderly or sick passengers.

With women in mind, coachbuilders furnished the car with a more comfortable and greater interior feel: valuable fabrics, carefully chosen colours, impeccable finishes, an abundance of storage areas and spaces to accommodate all kinds of small objects essential for travellers, trunks decorated with mirrors and small toiletries, kettles, heaters and small vases etc. At the end of the 19th century, certain very luxurious, private park-drags and road-coaches were transformed on their interiors into veritable washrooms for ladies, with china sinks and toilets fed by a water tank hidden in the vehicle's boot.

The Duchess of Berry has strong hands like a man, and can lead very well herself, as has been the fashion for some time.

Princesse Palatine, lettre du 24 juin 1718

Themselves the first users of carriages and inspirers of luxury and refinement, women also sought to indulge in the pleasure of the leading from very early on, as evidenced by a letter dated 24 June 1718, in which the Princess Palatine says of her granddaughter: "The Duchess of Berry has strong hands like a man, and can lead very well herself, as has been the fashion for some time." Queen Marie Antoinette drove a gig with one horse. The Empress Eugenie led her George IV phaetons hitched to ponies.

Enthusiasm for rein-driving spread among high-society women in the mid-19th century. "Out in the country, we had begun to see that an honest woman could lead a pony. Starting in 1855, bolder women timidly began to drive in the countryside. In 1860, they openly drove in the countryside and timidly made their way into Paris in the morning. By 1880, the issue became a matter of course, even in the afternoon." (Croqueville [Duchess of Fitz-James] Paris en voiture, à cheval, aux courses, à la chasse [Paris in carriage, on horse, at the races and hunting], 1892)

While leading a team was then a hobby for most women, it became an occupation for others: in February 1907, seven women became the first professional women cab drivers on the streets of Paris after passing the mandatory aptitude review.

Today, there are many who practice leading both as an athletic competition and as tradition.

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