Bicycles and bustles

While there are still not many sources for functional, relatively fashionable clothing for women who bike, I’m generally quite relieved that I am not trying to bike in the nineteenth century. While things did get a bit better by the 1890s, the first women to ride bicycles in 1868 had to find something new to wear.

Morning Dress, circa 1870, Met Museum
Morning dress, circa 1870,  Met Museum

Even though the vast majority of velocipedists were men, there was very little written about what men should wear– short of suggestions that men might want to clip their trousers. When it came to the idea of women riding velocipedes, one obstacle was their dress. Women’s clothing in the late 1860s was in no way functional for bicycling– or for anything, really. Women’s skirts were the biggest hindrance. At this time, skirts were beginning to move away from the “hoop skirt” (think: Gone with the Wind), but they weren’t exactly shrinking in all dimensions. The above example is quite moderate for the time period, as it was a costume meant to be worn early in the day. The volume was becoming concentrated at the back in the form of a bustle and would eventually begin to resemble a shelf, which made sitting quite challenging. Additionally,  even if women rode tricycle velocipedes, long skirts were impossible. So, what exactly could a velocipedienne wear if she were daring enough to ride in public?

What to wear depended largely on where a woman would be cycling and who would be there to observe. A woman riding in single-sex gymnasium or in a private garden had more leeway than a “respectable” woman who wanted to ride in public. Some women rode for exercise, while many others rode as a form of titillating performance. Performers were not subject to the same rules of propriety.

Amelia Bloomer, proponent of a new style, Image scan by Philip V. Allingham
Amelia Bloomer, proponent of a new style, Image scan by Philip V. Allingham

Women riding in private could don a type of reform dress known as bloomers, which were very full, usually ankle-length pants inspired by Turkish clothing. They were first worn in public around 1850 in order to promote healthier women’s clothing, but the women who did so often were ridiculed. So, there was some precedence for women to wear adapted clothing. Nearly twenty years later, bloomers had not been forgotten and writers discussing what women could wear for the velocipede often suggested bloomers of some kind. On January 9, 1869 in Scientific American, one writer recommended “a shorter dress, with flowing pants,” for women to wear while riding in the park.

Image from Illustrated Western World, March 13, 1869, Courtesy of Children's Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.
Image from Illustrated Western World, March 13, 1869, Courtesy of Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.

The “Velocipede Belle” from Illustrated Western World shows the kind of costume that women could wear, although the costume illustrated would have been quite risqué given how much of her lower body is visible. I’m not sure that her bloomers quite qualify as “flowing,” but that is a rather subjective term.  The velocipede belle’s costume certainly appears to be inspired by both the 1850s bloomer, although they are shorter, and late-1860s fashions. The style of her skirt follows the general silhouette of the period, including more volume at the back than at the front, with the bow bringing additional volume to the almost-bustle. The ruffled details are similar to the costume from the Met Museum. Photographic evidence suggests that the illustration is a fairly accurate representation of what women would have worn. The significance of a woman riding in public while being pursued by two men is a separate issue entirely.

Black (first name unknown), a trick-rider on her velocipede, circa 1869. Carte de Visite Courtesy of the Collection of Lorne Shields
Black (first name unknown), a trick-rider on her velocipede, circa 1869. Carte de Visite Courtesy of the Collection of Lorne Shields

The above carte de visite is a rare example of a woman photographed on a velocipede. The subject– a trick rider– is clad in a fashionable jacket and a shortened skirt over bloomers. It is difficult to tell, but it appears that the bloomers are cuffed in a material that matches the skirt. Neither of the figures are wearing true bustles, but both costumes have more volume at the back than at the front of sides. Note that in both examples the figures show very little skin. They wear gloves and hats and have high collars. Still, their appearance would have not been acceptable everyday dress, even if their costumes appear very modest by twenty-first century standards.

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A brief history of the velocipede

Exant second generation velocipede, circa 1868 By tetedelacourse (Velocipede Michaux-1) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Exant second generation velocipede, circa 1868 
Early bicycles– often known as velocipedes– first became popular in Paris in 1867. Who exactly invented the bicycle remains contested territory, but a carriage maker named Pierre Michaux worked with three brothers named Marius, Aimé, and René Olivier to sell velocipedes. They were the first to have commercial success. Velocipedes are recognizable as bicycles, and were sometimes called such as early as 1868. However, they are quite cumbersome compared to modern bicycles. Today, most bicycles are rear-driven, with the pedals and cranks driven by a chain. Like modern bicycles, the velocipede had two equally sized wheels, but the pedals were attached to the axis of the front wheel, which meant that the cyclist’s legs stretched out in front, which was an awkward riding position at best.1

The American Velocipede, 1868, a wood engraving from Harper's Weekly
The American Velocipede, 1868, a wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly

The velocipede was heavy, difficult to ride, and prohibitively expensive. In March 1869 in The Velocipedist Earnest Travers de Vere wrote that, while getting on a velocipede was not difficult: “To stay on is a labor of genius.”2  Velocipedes were made of iron and had wooden wheels like a wagon wheel, plus iron tires. Because they were so uncomfortable to ride, the British referred to them as “Boneshakers.” The cost of purchasing a velocipede meant that very few people could afford to own them. In the United States, for example, a velocipede cost between $75 to $100 ($1300 to $1700 in 2014), when a weekly income of $10 was more than adequate pay. Many of the first velocipedists were wealthy young Frenchmen with noble titles.

Velocipedes became a fad Western Europe and the United States, starting in France. In Paris, newly paved streets helped make way for the velocipede, with young men riding together at the popular park the Bois de Boulogne. Velocipedists formed clubs and public races became a popular diversion. Similar races also took place in Britain.

The first velocipedes arrived in the United States in late 1868.  Indoor rinks and schools opened up, with the teachers often having barely more experience riding than the students. There were schools everywhere from New York to Chicago to San Francisco, and even small towns opened up velocipede rinks. Students could rent velocipedes, which made learning to ride less exclusive. The rinks were often in small spaces on the upper floor of a building, which could be hazardous as novice cyclists crashed through windows. In the United States, most people rode indoors, as road conditions were quite poor. Those who rode outside often used sidewalks, which did nothing to help their popularity with non-cyclists.

Women's velocipede. Note that it has a seat instead of a saddle.
Women’s velocipede. Note that it has a seat instead of a saddle.

Bicycling was considered to be a masculine sport from the very beginning. For one thing, it was dangerous, for another women did not have as much social latitude as men and were not encouraged to be independent. Yet, a few brave women wanted to ride velocipedes anyway. Many women rode velocipedes with three wheels and/or a drop frame that they could mount more easily. One woman from Georgia who wrote into Scientific American was concerned with the propriety of riding astride and suggested a side-saddle machine.3

Velocipediennes, or female velocipedists, first rode in France. Who were these women? It is unlikely that the first women were themselves aristocrats, as such an activity would have been considered utterly inappropriate. Instead, given the cost of velocipedes, I believe that the the first women to ride were courtesans or mistresses to wealthy male patrons. For example, two courtesans Cora Pearl and Blanche d’Antigny both were known to ride velocipedes.

Many women who rode did so as a kind of performance, which meant they were outside of the rules that applied to middle and upper-class women. Women began to take part in races in France in 1868. Women raced in Bordeaux, France and in the Hippodrome (a wooden stadium that seated 15,000) in the Bois de Boulogne, in Paris. These races became quite popular. After all, riding a velocipede required much scantier clothing than women ordinarily wore. The women who performed on velocipedes were quite risque’. Some women who attempted to race were not skilled riders, but others were accomplished athletes.

In the United States, some women, such as Edith Shuler of Chicago and Carrie Moore (The “Velocipede Queen”) became skilled cyclists and performed for audiences,  sometimes even giving lessons to other women. Although velocipediennes were strongly associated with performance, some American women wanted to ride for exercise– and perhaps also to gain some freedom.  Private schools gave women the opportunity to learn away from the prying eyes of men. The velocipede did not have any long term effects on women’s independence, but it provided at least a few women with some personal freedom.

Footnotes

1 See: Bicycle by David Herlihy and Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing. Herlihy’s book and primary sources I found in my research informed the majority of this post..
2 The Velocipedist may have been the first American bicycling magazine. I was able to study the first issue at the Benson Ford Research Center at the Henry Ford Museum.
3 Her letter was published January 30, 1869.

Why bikes and clothing?

If you’ve ever wondered what would possess someone to spend several years of their life writing a large, unwieldy manuscript that may or may not lead directly to gainful employment, you are not alone. I’m certainly not able to answer that question in general, but for me it was a combination of nerdiness, passion, and determination combined with a mild dose of masochism. Not to mention very supportive and overly-educated parents. That and the realization that I could combine two things I love into one very large Word file: dress history and bicycles.

The bicycle often has been linked to ideas about liberating women. Susan B. Anthony famously said: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” While bicycling did not really transform the women’s movement, for women living in the late nineteenth-century, bicycling made it much easier to move through the world relatively unencumbered. Horses were very costly to own and maintain. Early bicycles were also expensive, but they became much more affordable by the mid-1890s, opening up cycling to multiple classes of women.

There is still something magical about getting on a bicycle and flying off down the road, regardless of one’s gender identity. Imagine how it might have felt to a woman who lived in a world without many transportation choices, where gender roles for women were far more restrictive than they are today. Women had to find ways to define bicycling as an acceptable activity for a “lady.” They had to learn how to ride, figure out what to wear, and some had to convince their fathers or husbands that bicycling was a reasonable activity. Considering bicycling clothing was necessary for practical reasons (how do you ride in a skirt?), but clothing was also a language that most women spoke. Linking it to bicycling made bicycling seem more accessible. Which brings me to why on earth I would want to write about bicycles and dress.

I’ve always been interested in clothing, and in high school I took three years of intensive sewing. Really. I stayed after school and sewed. I sometimes came in on weekends and sewed. Basically, along with piles of novels, sewing was my salvation. I did not have raw talent for sewing, but I do have stubbornness on my side, so I figured it out eventually. Later, I figured out I could combine books and clothing by studying dress history, so off I went to grad school.

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Bicycles were a somewhat more challenging progression. Both of my parents used bicycles to get around as kids. I did not. Not because my parents wouldn’t let me, but because I had a strong aversion to that wobbly two-wheeled object. Eventually, I figured out bicycling and came to enjoy it, but I regretfully never biked in college in Chicago. After I moved here, it took me a while to become accustomed to biking in the Twin Cities. But then I fell in love. First with a bike mechanic (quickly rendered irrelevant) and more importantly with bicycling itself. After the former romance with soured, I decided I was going to invest in a nice bike and get  into more serious cycling on my own. So, I bought a Salsa Casseroll, pictured above. Learning to really ride a bicycle– as opposed to casual rides on a hybrid– was a steep learning curve. Thanks to one crash, my chin is no longer symmetrical, but the early crashes were a small price to pay to finding such a liberating activity. Why did I find cycling so liberating?

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Cycling made me much more confident. I was never especially athletic when I was growing up, so it was transformative to find a physical activity I liked. I loved that I could go on a ride by myself whenever I wanted, but that I could also explore the city by bike with others. I’ve met many people through cycling I never would have met otherwise (I also met my husband because of bicycling, but that is a story for another time). I became much more familiar with the cities by bike than I ever would have by car. Bicycling also served as an activity other than reading in which I could remain in my typical hunched-over position. What do you find liberating about biking?

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Eventually, I realized that my focus on dress history– namely satire in the 1890s, could easily be linked to bicycles. Popular satirical magazines like the British Punch and the American Puck often made fun of women’s fashions. The trope of the New Woman, or early feminists who reportedly adopted masculine habits and dress, became a frequent target. Cartoonists often depicted the New Woman wearing bloomers and riding a bicycle, an image that endures to this day when people think of women bicycling in the 1890s. Yet, I discovered that most women rode in skirts. So, why did this image occur again and again? My topic was spurred on by a random conversation with someone who recommended that I look at bicycling posters. While my main focus ended up on neither satire nor posters, my early research for class papers combined with one random conversation sparked the beginning of this very long path.

La Velocipedienne

I’ve been meaning to start a blog on women, bicycling, and appearance since 2012 or so. After years of mostly academic writing, I’d like to branch into something a little less structured. My dissertation looks at women’s cycling dress from 1868-1900, but I have found that many of the conversations about women biking continue to resonate today. My goal will be to cover everything from bicycling clothing in the mid-to-late nineteenth century to what it is like for women biking today. I’m interested in the many ways that women bike both today and in the past, and in how our definitions of what it means to be “feminine” on a bicycle developed.

Writing for Citylab.com, the writer Sarah Goodyear solicited responses to the question: “Is there such thing as a feminine way to ride a bike?” Goodyear was inspired by a tweet written by the writer and bicycle advocate Elly Blue: “What does “feminine” mean? I’m serious. It keeps coming up in the context of things women can do to feel that way on a bike, + I’m confused.” Goodyear’s question struck me because I am a cyclist and because I had been grappling with the same issue– albeit in the 19th century– as I worked on my dissertation.

A woman I know once remarked that she biked in a very lady-like way. Even before she mentioned riding with an upright posture, I knew exactly what she meant. “Feminine” bicycling implies riding slowly, with upright posture, probably on a cruiser, while wearing a dress (Considering why dresses are feminine is a bit beyond my scope here). But why did I instantly know what she meant? After all, most of the women I know don’t bike like that, or if they do it is because they find an upright position most comfortable and don’t want to have to change clothes to go on a ride. Sometimes I have wished I had that kind of bike for short bike commutes where I wanted to dress for where I was going, not how I was getting there. That is, while there is nothing wrong with riding in a “feminine” manner for the sake of style, someone might choose to ride that way simply because it is most convenient for them at that time.