Caitlin Starr Cohn has a Ph.D. Apparel Studies at the University of Minnesota. She wrote her dissertation on women’s bicycling dress from 1868-1900. She became obsessed with bicycles starting in 2011 and eventually realized that she could combined bicycles and clothing into one research project. She lives in Linz, Austria with her equally bicycle-obsessed husband, infant daughter, and cat.
To the surprise of no one, finishing my dissertation took up absolutely all of my writing energy. So now that I’ve done with my Ph.D. (a day that seemed unreachable), I now can return to exploring this topic in a more accessible way.
For my research, the written sources I used were written for a public audience. Most of the articles and all of the cycling guides were didactic. That is, most writers were attempting to teach their readers about cycling, which frequently included advice on how to dress. Granted, I was looking for information on women, which may have biased my methods, but I found much more advice on how women should dress as compared to how men should dress. In the future, I would like to dig more deeply into men’s dress in order to have a more complete understanding.
My project really wasn’t focused on what the average woman wore or how she might have experienced dressing for cycling. It’s true that I could have analyzed articles for this information, but given the performative aspect of writing for the public (and late 19th century mores), I wasn’t comfortable reading that much into their personal experiences. Franky, just writing about what styles were recommended was a huge undertaking and certainly enough for one dissertation. As interesting as it might be to get at the identity of these women, that’s another project entirely. I’d love to look at diaries and letters, but I have no idea what I’d find.
I am, however, planning to talk to cyclists living in the Twin Cities to learn about how cycling impacts/ relates to their personal style. The styles of dress have obviously changed greatly since the 19th century, but it will be interesting to learn how much the conversation has changed. Up next will be a description of an exemplary 1890s cycling costume.
In the last two weeks, I have biked both in snowy Minneapolis and in a winterless suburb of Orlando. It remains to be seen how it will feel to bike again in Minneapolis after getting the chance to bike again in shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. Granted, at the moment it is in the 40s and raining, so it isn’t exactly a return to winter cycling.
Assuming I am dressed correctly, the cold is not my biggest obstacle when it comes to winter cycling. The necessity of dressing for the cold, and determining the correct layers, is a bigger challenge. Dressing for the cold and riding in the cold may seem to be more or less the same issue, but to parse a bit more finely, I’ve found that once I dress correctly, the cold is no longer very troublesome. Granted, I’m fortunate that I choose when and where I ride.
I recently attended the Winter Cycling Congress, which was conveniently held in Minneapolis this year. How to dress for winter came up multiple times. Unfortunately, it was not the central focus of any presentations outside of a pecha kucha on how to layer. If I weren’t trying to finish my dissertation (hence the rather long absence), I would have liked to have conducted interviews with cyclists on how they dress and thinking about what to wear to bike in the cold.
Throughout the conference I found it interesting how often the idea that one didn’t need to invest much money in clothes for winter cycling came up. It’s certainly possible to buy almost everything at thrift stores (and I personally like to use my dad’s old cashmere sweaters as a mid-layer on really cold days), but I do think there is something to be said for specialized clothing. I’m especially in favor of specialized clothing for longer rides. Soft-shell tights with articulated knees, like the tights I have from Bontrager, make for much more comfortable rides. For commuting my biggest clothing necessity is a day-glow yellow windbreaker, mostly because people aren’t necessarily expecting cyclists in winter.
It seemed that there was some level of discomfort with explicitly discussing what factors would affect someone’s interest in and ability to invest in optimal gear– and not just in regard to clothing. Some attendees were critical of fat bikes. This is my first winter with a fat bike, and mine even has studded tires, and I love it. I’ve biked in previous winters, but always somewhat tentatively. Having a fat bike makes winter bicycling much more accessible and enjoyable. Of course, a fat bike isn’t necessary for biking in the winter, but it can certainly help make winter cycling less scary. For those who can’t afford/ don’t want a fat bike but want/need to bike in winter, studded tires are a huge help. Clearly, some people manage to get by just fine without them, but I’m far too nervous about falling for that, except on days where everything has been cleared.
For me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, fear of falling is actually a bigger challenge than the cold. An even bigger fear is having a car lose control and hit me, but I’m lucky to live a couple of blocks from a trail. I’ve found that off-road cycling with my fat bike is the most fun I’ve ever had at three miles an hour. One day we rode at the River Bottoms just after it had snowed several inches, so the snow was not yet packed down. Sadly, I never seem to remember to take photos when cycling, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it was quite lovely.
We weren’t the first fat-bikers to ride the trail, so there was about an eight-inch wide path of packed snow. As far as bike handling, it’s the hardest biking I’ve ever done. I kept veering off in one direction or the other and barely saving myself from falling, although there are worse fates than falling into the soft snow. At one point, we saw the outline of an arm where someone else had lost their balance. At this rate, I may even be a mediocre mountain biker by the end of winter.
During the nineteenth century, men’s dress clearly needed less adaptation for cycling than women’s, but men also wore specialized clothing. Unfortunately, men’s clothing tends to be neglected in studies– including in my own dissertation, but I do hope to expand my studies in the future.
Western men’s clothing used to be just as decorative as women’s clothing (if quite a bit narrower in silhouette), but starting in the late 18th century, men began to adopt increasingly plain three-piece suits. J. C. Flügel famously referred to men’s transition from decorative to somber as, “The great masculine renunciation.” During the nineteenth century, men typically wore a jacket of some type, a vest, a shirt, and trousers. Men’s clothing was dramatically different from women’s clothing.
Based on images, it appears that men’s clothing did not tend to be greatly adapted for riding a velocipede. Men generally are shown wearing three pieces suits and full-length trousers, although they could be tucked into tall boots or worn under spats. Men may also have strapped their trousers down to keep them from catching. Images of men on high-wheels in the early 1870s often show men wearing narrow long trousers. Men’s dress bicycling dress seems to have changed starting in the mid-1870s.
Beginning around 1850, men began wearing short pants known as knickerbockers for riding, shooting, and hunting. In previous centuries, many men had worn knee length trousers, which were sometimes known as breeches. It appears that men who bicycled began to take their cue from other sports and integrated knickerbockers (which were cut full and buckled at the knee) or narrow breeches into their bicycling wardrobe.
A jacket, vest, and breeches or knickerbockers became the typical costume of gentleman cyclists. Some men continued to ride in long pants, which was probably especially common for men riding to a particular destination, such as work. For more serious riding, knee-length trousers were more functional, as they were less likely to catch. Cycling knickers also contained useful features such as reinforced crotches, so abrasion would not shorten their life span.
Granted, by today’s standards, with many cyclists dressing in spandex with padded shorts, these clothes hardly seem entirely functional, much less comfortable, particularly for warm weather riding when even light-weight woven wool must have been quite uncomfortable. There are images of men wearing only a vest and a shirt, and in some instances only a shirt, so men most likely adapted how they dressed based on weather conditions.
Many bicycling clubs had uniforms, which clearly identified members. Uniforms also served as a way of keeping out men who could not afford to purchase one. Early high-wheel clubs were quite exclusive. As David V. Herlihy has explained, during the 1870s British clubs often required that members be able to pay for a bicycle, a uniform, and dues. Additionally, they needed to be nominated by a current member and their admittance was determined by vote. The first American high-wheel bicycle club was formed in 1879, at Harvard, which suggests a similar level of elitism.
According to Jesse J. Gant and Nicholas Hoffman in Wheel Fever, men’s cycling clothing became less formal by the end of the nineteenth century, and tended to be woven out of lighter materials, such as light-weight tweeds. However, as there are very few extant garments, it is difficult to establish how much materials changed during the late nineteenth-century. The Los Angeles County Historical Museum has a men’s cycling suit made out of linen, which would have been much less durable than wool, but much cooler to wear.
Men who took part in serious races were able to wear much more informal and better adapted clothing than most other men. Based on images, it appears that racers wore knit wool, which was a common enough material for both men’s and women’s undergarments. During the 1890s, men raced in short-sleeved or sleeves shirts, along with shorts that fell to mid-thigh (and sometimes even shorter). I am not sure when this type of cycling clothing became common, but Harper’s Weekly featured men wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts in 1886. This type of cycling clothing looks remarkably similar to what many cyclists wear today.
I’m at the point in my dissertation where I really should be focused entirely on revising, and not collecting any new data. I am mostly succeeding in this endeavor. However, I started working on revising my chapter on women’s dress and velocipedes, I found myself falling into a vortex trying to fill in some more gaps about women’s clothes.
It turns out that newspaper archives are a dangerous place to wander into if I want to get anything else done. Thus I have found myself searching through the Access Newspaper: Academic Library Version, which is an enormous repository of scanned newspapers (the British Newspaper Archive is also a great resource).
In 1869, velocipedes were wildly popular. When I looked for the term “velocipede” between 1868 and 1870, I ended up with 4,893 results. Narrowing my search to adding “dress” and any combination of “women,” “woman,” “lady,” and “ladies” led to. . .2,005 results. “Velocipede” and “bloomers” gave me a more manageable 24 results, most of which did not really lead anywhere helpful. There are also a number of other terms I could have tried, such as “bicycle,” a term that was in use by the height of the velocipede’s popularity.
This resource also does not give me any French language resources, which would lead me down a slower and more intensive path. I can read/translate French when I need to, but it’s a rather slow process compared to working in English. And it’s not like doing this kind of work in English is fast, either. Fortunately, I can scan through PDFs with word searches– which is much, much faster than working with actual documents– but the scans are often poor quality.
There is very little descriptive information regarding velocipede dress. As discussed in a previous entry, I have been able to piece together a general sense of how women may have dressed, but there just isn’t a complete picture. Granted, trying to determine from bits and pieces what options women may have had is part of the fun of research, at least from my slightly strange perspective. I’m afraid, however, that is time to cut myself off from the research vortex and focus on the information I do have.
Originally, I had planned to talk to a few people about dressing for winter cycling, as well as describe my own (somewhat limited) experience. Then I asked Christine Bachman-Sanders, of The Golden Tandem a few questions and she provided me an enormous amount of information. As Christine actually did most of the work here, I will simply include my questions and her answers. All images are courtesy of Christine.
When did you start biking in winter (if you remember) and what prompted you to start?
I think my first winter biking excursion was in 2011 when my partner, Ian, and I biked from Boston to Block Island, RI–about 100 miles each way–for a weekend of snowy riding. On our tandem. This is when we learned about the magic of leg-swings every hour and chemical hand warmers. We made the trip again the following two years, each time managing to catch another cold spell and significant snow-fall, which just made our pit stops for hot tea and pie all the more justified.
I’ve been an avid cyclist for ten years, and do plenty of long-distance touring in all weather, but while living in Boston and New York City, I often took the subway on rainy days and during the winter. Upon moving in August 2014 to Minneapolis–the cyclist’s dream city–I decided to commit to bicycle commuting year-round.
Last winter, 2014 – 2015, was my first official all-winter, every-day bicycle commuting. It was such a joy! I loved knowing that no matter what the day brought, I’d get a chance to be out on my bike. I was very nervous at first about whether or not I could really stick it out. I’m from the northeast, so winter isn’t new for me, but I was intimidated by Minnesota’s reputation for extreme cold. I know last year’s winter wasn’t the coldest on record by far, but it was certainly the coldest winter I’ve ever faced. That said, I was amazed by how easy it was to continue biking through even the chilliest and darkest days. A few things really helped to keep my motivation: 1) I decided early on that I simply wasn’t going to take a single day “off.” If I had to get somewhere, the bicycle would be my only option. I knew that if I made even one exception and took the bus one day instead, it would be much more difficult to convince myself to continue cycling on the hardest days; 2) I’m really cheap. Why take the bus when riding my bike is free?; 3) I have never owned a car, and hope to make that a life-long reality. Biking through the winter was one way I was able to test whether this car-less lifestyle is sustainable and achievable for me. Very happy that the answer was yes!; 4) My partner is also a winter cyclist. Knowing that he would also be out every day was enough motivation (and competition) to ensure that I’d brave the elements, too; 5) I love being outside and moving my body. I know the winter can be an especially isolating time because of the freezing temperatures and shorter days. Getting on my bicycle every day meant that I’d get at least an hour of outside time. This is also the only designated part of my day that I don’t have to do anything else–it can be meditative for someone who doesn’t like actually mediating.
What type of winter riding/ distances do you do?
These days, most of my winter riding is my daily commute. I ride almost every day for a total of about 12 miles. This is a good distance because my commute isn’t long enough to risk actually getting too cold. For me, 30 minutes of riding each way, even on the coldest days, is manageable. As long as I’m wearing the right layers, I can maintain a comfortable and safe temperature. On a ride longer than that, I would need to make some larger adjustments to my wardrobe and perhaps even make chemical warmers a consistent accessory.
As a long-distance tourer, I brave the occasional long-distance ride in the winter, like the 100 mile trips between Boston and Block Island, RI. This kind of winter riding is quite different from the daily commute. I risk becoming much colder on these rides, because I’m outside for so much longer, and I’m usually biking at a lesser intensity in order to maintain my energy for 8 hours on the bike. As a result, the key to long-distance winter riding is to make many, many stops. I make it a habit to stop every hour at least to swing out my legs and arms, make sure the blood is flowing, grab a snack, and when necessary, take refuge in a warm place for a warm drink. I also tend to wear more clothing when long-distance riding, and have plenty of back-up layers for when I need to make a longer stop without finding a place indoors.
For someone who is just starting and doesn’t want to/ can’t afford to invest a lot of money, what is the basic winter gear you would recommend? Any fancier gear that one can live without but you absolutely love?
Clothing is super important for winter riding. It’s really all about the wind-stopping layers. Many first-time winter cyclists (like me!) make the initial mistake of wearing too much. When I ride, I wear much less clothing than I would if I were walking or waiting for the bus. That said, dressing for winter cycling is a project. There are lots of moving pieces, and many decisions to make based on weather and riding conditions. Once you get the hang of your winter system, it becomes automatic, but knowing what to wear when is a learning process. For me, the following items are all essential at different times, and while the cost can certainly add up, there are ways to get creative and re-purpose items you already have. Here is everything I wear on the bike:
Light-weight wind-stopping jacket
I wear the Patagonia Houdini. This isn’t cheap, but if you can find it on sale, it’s my absolute favorite shell. I use this as the outer-most top layer, and depending on the temperature, I can wear more or less underneath. As a result, I use this jacket on cool days in the spring and fall, and every day in the winter. It’s also super light and and packs down into a tiny ball, which is great news for any backpacker or cycle tourist. Keep in mind that while this jacket does an awesome job stopping the wind, it has no insulation and is not water-proof. I replace this jacket with a rain shell on very snowy or rainy days.
Breathable wind-stopping, waterproof rain pants
I wear REI-brand Novara rain pants made specifically for cycling. Not top-of-the-line, but not free! I tried a cheaper version that didn’t claim to be breathable, and it was a huge mistake. I arrived dry on the outside, but very, very wet on the inside from my own sweat. Breathable, even if not perfect, is definitely superior.
Clear-lens Ski Goggles
I start wearing clear-lens goggles when it drops below 20* F, or when it’s actively snowing or sleeting. In weather, it really helps with visibility, and I love wearing them on the most frigid days, because it keeps a good chunk of face protected from the wind–nice and toasty! You don’t need to break the bank on these. You should be able to find a good pair for $15 – $25. Go for clear, because you never know when you might find yourself riding in very grey weather or in the dark.
The are tons of options for winter biking gloves, and depending on your circulation and the length of your ride, this will vary significantly. For 30-45 minute rides in 32* F or above, I’ve done quite well with a simple glove liner. These are cheap, light-weight, and basic. Once it drops below 30*, I switch to a heavier duty bicycle glove, like the Planet Bike Borealis. Below 20* F, I wear the liners underneath my Borealis gloves. For rides longer than an hour, I usually wear (or at least bring) heavy insulated winter mittens. These can be awkward to bicycle with (less handle-bar control), but if you’ve already got them, and you’re on a budget, they will do the job.
These don’t have to be anything fancy, but they are essential. I wear a super thin liner hat. Anything thicker won’t fit easily under my helmet, and I find I don’t need the extra warmth. I pair this with a light or medium-weight neck warmer that I can pull up to the edge of my goggles when needed, or pull down if I’m too hot. On really cold days, I combine my hat-neck warmer standard with an additional full-coverage balaclava. There are lots of super fancy bike-specific balaclavas out there, but after much hand-wringing last year, I found that the basic hiking balaclava I already had did the trick. This gives me one extra layer and a little extra coverage on the coldest days. The idea is that if necessary, with balaclava, hat, neck warmer and goggles, I can protect all the skin on my face from chilling winds, but still have the option to pull that neck warmer down if I’m over-heating and need some air.
Winter boots and socks
Fancy insulated winter bicycle shoes aren’t warm enough for a Minnesota winter. Instead of spending the money on a pair of cycling shoes that won’t keep my toes from freezing on the coldest days, I just use my general, heavy-duty winter boots for winter cycling. Inside my boots, I wear a heavy hiking sock. It’s clunky and takes some getting used to, but I adjust to it pretty quickly, and it keeps me warm. I also replace my pedals with big platforms for the season. Using platform pedals is an advantage for winter cycling because you can easily remove your feet from the pedals in an instant to avoid a fall or retain balance on an icy patch.
Underneath my jacket shell and rain pants, I layer up or down, depending on the temperature. On the coldest days, I tend to wear three layers: 1) a light or medium-weight base layer, like merino wool long underwear. I like Minus 33 brand base layers for tops and bottoms, but anything comparable will do the job; 2) Because I’m commuting and don’t want to change clothes completely upon arriving at my destination, I tend to wear a regular pair of pants over my base layer and under my rain shell. This provides an extra layer of warmth and reduces the hassle of having to change. On top, I wear a zip-up fleece on the coldest days over my base layer and under my wind-stopping jacket; 3) Finally, I suit-up with my wind-stopping layers (see above).
In addition to my wardrobe transformation, my bicycle has a winter make-over as well:
These have been a life-saver. Trying to bicycle on narrow road or touring tires can be very dangerous in the snow or on ice. As soon as there is ice on the road, switch out your slicks for a pair of studs, and witness the magic! Sure, you go a lot slower, but winter biking isn’t about speed–it’s about getting outside everyday and staying alive to enjoy it. I use Nokian Hakkapeliitta tires, but there are several brands that will serve the same function. They aren’t the cheapest, but it has made a huge difference in my sense of safety and how and where I am able to ride. Make sure that they are sized to fit your wheels!
Lights, Bell, Rack, and Fenders
These are year-round accessories for me, but I think they are especially important for winter riding. A good head and rear light are super important for making sure you can see all the tricky ice patches ahead, and so that other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists can see you! I’ve recently fallen in love with the Serfas True 505 headlight. It’s USB rechargeable, easy to take on and off, and has excellent visibility. It’s pricey, though, so if you’re on a budget, just make sure you’re using a light strong enough to see and be seen. I’ve used Planet Bike’s affordable SuperFlash rear light forever, and have no complaints.
Get a bell. Get a rack. Get fenders. The bell makes me happy and makes me heard. The rack saves my back from lugging all the stuff I need at my job or while I’m out on errands. It also means that I don’t need to factor in how my temperature will change while riding and wearing a backpack. When I do wear a backpack, I tend to get sweaty, but I’m not warmer, so I have a harder time knowing how to layer. On my rack, I use a waterproof pannier. There are lots of great options, including the very popular Ortlieb brand. They are quite expensive, but excellent quality. I still use my Outdoor Pacific Equipment panniers, now called Hyalite Equipment panniers, which work great. They are a little more affordable, but have a very similar design and, most importantly, they are totally waterproof. The fenders will save you and your bicycle from all kinds of grit and slush. Not only will you arrive cleaner and drier, but your bicycle will be better protected from all the nasty salt, grit, and chemicals that cover roads in the winter.
The Fat Bike Question
I had never heard of a “Fat Bike” until I moved to Minnesota. Here, I see them on mountain bike trails in good weather, and zooming along bike paths on the snowiest winter days. I biked on my touring commuter bike all winter last year with the studded tires, and it got the job done very well. But this year, I got to try a fat bike for the first time, and fell in love. It is by no means necessary for safe and fun winter biking, but if you have the extra cash, the extra space, or you come across one on sale, it can be a really fun way to experience winter cycling. We’ve only had one really snowy day so far this season, but when I took my fat bike out early in the morning before the plows had cleared away the several inches of snow from the bike paths, it felt so powerful to be able to bike through and over anything without fear of falling. And I’m pretty sure I had the easiest, fastest, and most fun commute of anyone I know that day! I hope to use both my fat bike and my every-day commuter this winter, depending on the conditions.
What factors do you take into account when you figure out what to wear in the morning?
I think about temperature, chance of precipitation, and whether I’ll be riding in daylight or in the dark. If the temperature is in the 50s or 40s and clear, I’ll just wear one pair of pants, and a base layer on top with either a fleece or the wind-stopping jacket, but not both. I might wear a hat, and have the neck warmer just in case, but I’ll definitely wear some thin glove liners. In the 30s, I’ll definitely wear a hat, neck warmer, glove liners or Borealis gloves, but not both. I’ll usually wear long underwear under my pants, but I won’t always wear the rain pants over that. I will wear a base layer up top and my wind-stopping jacket. Sometimes I’ll bring an extra fleece, but that’s usually too much warmth. In the 20s, I suit up completely: three layers on top, three layers on bottom, hat, neck warmer (plus balaclava on the coldest days), glove liners with Borealis gloves over them, clear goggles, and heavy winter boots. When it’s raining or snowing heavily, I’ll replace my wind-stopping jacket with a raincoat.
Any lessons learned the hard way?
I’ve fallen twice–once last winter, and once this winter. Both times, I lost control of my bike while riding through a patch of very rutted ice. This kind of ice usually occurs after there has been a partial thaw, which turns the ice and snow into slush, and then freezes again after lots of bicycles, cars, or feet have made lots of impressions and ruts in the now frozen-again ice. In both cases, my bike lost traction when it got steered by a rut in another direction, causing me to lose balance and perform a rather impressive full-frontal asphalt-flop. In both cases, I didn’t yet have my studded tires on, and I was going too fast. I’m pretty sure that if my studs had been on, I first of all would have been biking more slowly out of necessity, and secondly, I think I would have retained traction and control more easily due to the grip of the studs. Luckily, both falls occurred while cycling on an off-street bike path, so cars were not an added danger. When I share the road with cars while winter biking, I am always careful to bicycle more slowly, and take up more of the lane. The on-street bike paths are often icier or snowier than the main road, and can build up a gritty, icy snow-ledge between parked and moving cars. I avoid the death-ledge at all costs–this is exactly the kind of thing that will result in a nasty fall, and falling on the street is something I’d really like to avoid.
Anything else that comes to mind.
Do it!! Biking in all weather year-round is great for so many reasons: it gets me outside and celebrating the day even in the dreariest weather; it keeps me active during the hibernation season; it saves me money on other forms of transportation; it allows me to be independent and control my commute time more easily; it makes me feel like I’m doing my small part in making environmentally conscious, sustainable decisions; and also, I just love biking.
The safety bicycle, or what most people think of simply as a bicycle, is one of the most thoroughly discussed aspects of bicycle history. I have over half a dozen books that discuss its development in great detail. More books continue to be written, and it appears that there is still more to be said on the subject. Given the sheer amount of information available, I am barely going to scratch the surface here.
McCammon safety bicycle, 1884. Science Museum via Wikimedia Commons.
An 1885 Whippet safety bicycle. Science Museum Via Wikimedia Commons.
The high-wheel clearly was not safe, although its danger was part of its appeal. Still, some bicycle designers were interested in making a safer bicycle and came up with a number of different designs. Unlike modern bicycles, the earliest safety bicycle still did not have equally sized wheels, although they were much closer in size than a high-wheels two wheels. None of these early designs were as elegant as the high-wheel, but they demonstrate the experimentation that occurred on the way to modern bicycles.
In 1885, British cycling manufacturers debuted the first “diamond frame” bicycles. Of course, as Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing showed in Bicycle Deisgn: An Illustrated History, they are not truly diamond shaped, but it’s fairly clear why we call them that. These bicycles still did not have equally sized wheels, but it did not take long for manufacturers to make this change. Unlike the high-wheel and the velocipede, these bicycles are rear-driven. Rear-driven bicycles typically are chain driven.
Proponents of the high-wheel did not immediately adopt the safety bicycle, which some men thought unmasculine. As David V. Herlihy described in Bicycle, when safety bicycle technology improved it became apparent that the high-wheel’s heyday was coming to a close. One of the most important improvements was the pneumatic tire, which increased both comfort and speed. As racers found that they could ride faster on the safety bicycle than on the high-wheel, they quickly switched over. By the early 1890s, the safety bicycle had become the norm. The height of the bicycle boom occurred between 1895 and 1897, but bicycling culture was important throughout the 1890s.
The safety bicycle was also better adapted for use by women, although riding a diamond frame in long skirts was not exactly feasible. Drop-frame (or step through) bicycles made it possible for women to give up their tricycles in favor of less cumbersome bicycles. The first drop-frame bicycles designed particularly for women were introduced in both Britain and the United States in 1887. Interestingly, many American women adopted the bicycle before their British counterparts, some of whom continued to ride tricycles into the 1890s.
In 1889, the first mass-produced women’s bicycle, known as the Pscyho ladies’ bicycle (yes, that’s its real name), was introduced in Britain and soon imported to the United States. The drop-frame bicycle, like the tricycle, made it possible for women to ride in conventional clothing. However, it was not without flaws. For one thing, drop-frame bicycles were heavier and had less structural integrity. In addition, women’s skirts were still a hazard, so the bicycles tended to be equipped with a chain guard, a skirt guard, and fenders. All of these accouterments made them even heavier.
Some people probably thought women’s heavier bicycles were for the best, it was frowned upon for women to ride too quickly (known as scorching). Even a heavy bicycle was less cumbersome than a tricycle– and less expensive, and women took to it in scores. There are no precise numbers, but Ross Petty estimated that by 1896 there were between 1.3 and 3.25 million women riding bicycles in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. David V. Herlihy wrote that women purchased about one third of bicycles in the United States. So, women were a significant percentage of the market in the 1890s.
Women faced obstacles to becoming bicyclists, but it was easier for Anglo women of means to be accepted than it was for black cyclists such as the bicycle champion Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor. Major Taylor was not allowed to race against white cyclists in the Southern United states. In 1892, The League of American Wheelmen (LAW) stated that men of all races could join, but in 1894 black individuals were banned from joining, partially due to pressure from southern members. This topic, like the topic of gender in bicycling, is too important to be addressed in one paragraph (or one post). Jesse Gant’s post “Whites on Bikes” addresses racial exclusivity during the nineteenth century, although of course racism continues to be an issue in modern bicycling.
When women took up tricycling in the 1880s, the first question asked tended to be, “What should I wear?” Both men’s and women’s clothing during the 19th century was much more structured than most of the clothing we wear today. But at least men were able to wear pants. Women had to find a way to dress that looked appropriate (i.e. modest and fashionable), but was not hazardous.
Women who could afford to own tricycles were women of means, so they were able to afford specialized clothing for cycling. For women who had different dresses for walking, taking tea, and dinner, it would have made sense to have a different dress for tricycling as well. Granted, specialized cycling clothing in the 1880s did not look terribly different from other types of women’s dress. Unfortunately, I have not found any existing tricycling dresses, although it is possible some exist but no one knows they were used for tricycling.
Riding habit, circa 1885. At left, the skirt is down for riding, at right it is up for walking. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.385.3
Starting in seventeenth century, wealthy British women dressed in tailored woolen riding habits for riding horses. Riding habits were designed for women to ride side-saddle, and were designed with asymmetrical skirts that looked better on the horse than off the horse. Women were expected to change clothes before and after riding.
Women’s dress, 1870-1881. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 50.105.17
Walking dress, 1885-1888. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 60.38.7
Fashionable women’s dress in the 1880s was cumbersome and in no way designed for athletic endeavors. Earlier in the decade, women’s dresses typically had a long, tight bodice with the volume gathered at the back of the skirt in a low bustle. Later on, the bustle, which is a device that thrusts the back of the skirt out, increased in volume. Women did not necessarily wear bustles with all of their clothing, and very large bustles were worn only for formal affairs.Tricycling costumes appear to have had either no bustle or a very small bustle that did not interfere with a seat or saddle.
For tricycling, women tended to wear tailored wool garments that shared some similarities with riding habits. While we we would probably look at tailored garments and find them quite “feminine,” they adapted traits from men’s garments. Their silhouettes tended to be simplified and they made it possible, if not exactly comfortable, for women to be more active.
Women’s clothing choices were considered to be very important to convince the public that it was acceptable for women to ride tricycles at all. Overall, neutral colors were recommended for tricycling costumes, as they were less likely to show dirt. Even more importantly, neutral colors drew less attention to a woman on a tricycle, or at least made her look more serious.
Writers recommended a range of styles women could choose from, but in general women wore a wool jacket with a matching wool skirt, which could be pleated (a common feature in fashionable every dress) or plain (more like a riding habit). Skirts, of course, were problematic because skirts that were too wide or long could get caught in the machine. Skirts that were too narrow or short were also a problem because they could show too much of a rider’s legs. Even the motion of a woman’s knees showing through her skirts was frowned upon.
One of the most discussed issues of women’s tricycling dress related to undergarments, which could not even be seen. Starting in the 1870s, women had begun wearing narrow trousers under riding habits. These trousers could not be seen underneath skirts and allowed women to ride without petticoats.
Some writers thought that women should also adopt knickerbockers (narrow knee-length trousers) or ordinary trousers for tricycling. Trousers were in danger of showing, but knickerbockers would have been difficult to see unless they showed through the skirt.
Others, however, were vehemently opposed to women wearing any form of pants under their skirts, arguing that it was masculine. Additionally, they meant that women would have to change clothes before and after riding if one were riding to a destination where appearance mattered. Perhaps the biggest issue was that advocates of tricycling were afraid that women would be less likely to cycle if they had to put on pants to do so.
Tricycling was a sport practiced by wealthy women who mostly likely were well-known in upper-class social circles. As cycling was still a questionable activity for women, they needed to convince others that one could ride a tricycle– even for long distances– and still be feminine. So writing about what to wear became a central way that early advocates tried to draw other women in (and convince their fathers or husbands that they should be allowed to cycle). Tricycling dress was used to demonstrate that cycling had become a socially acceptable sport for women.
Even disregarding my appalling spandex and the mysterious plastic and foam object on my head, I bike in a way that would have horrified most late-nineteenth century lady cyclists. They would have looked askance at how I tend to hunch over my handlebars and called me a “scorcher” as they shook their heads. Many people disapproved of men scorching, but it was generally considered completely unacceptable for women to hunch over their handlebars.
During the 1880s and 1890s, men’s bicycles tended to have lower handlebars than women’s. Racing bikes, which were generally men’s bicycles, had particularly low bars, known as drop bars, which are still used today. Some women, even those who did not race, no doubt preferred to lean over their handlebars for increased speed and wind resistance, but they were roundly criticized. Fast riding was for men who rode seriously, while a woman was meant to ride in a stately manner at all times. Of course, some women did race bicycles and preferred drop bars, but racing for women was largely discouraged.
Women who rode tricycles and bicycles were encouraged to sit up straight. For women, good posture was associated with appearing feminine and elegant while cycling. In 1898, one writer wrote in the British magazine The Wheelwoman:
We are sorry. . . to notice an increase in the number of wheelwomen who ride with a pronounced bicycle stoop. This is a matter for regret, not merely because it is fatal to dignity and good looks, but because it indicates a desire of the part of a few woman to use the bicycle for speed, which is likely to turn it from an instrument of health to a means of peril.
That is, it was not only unappealing, it was bad for women’s health to exert themselves too much!
At least today, women are not as likely to be criticized for riding fast and even racing, although women’s racing does not receive nearly as much attention as men’s. Still, it is generally understood that the most “feminine” way to ride is in a dress while sitting up very straight. I am a bit conflicted about this as I sometimes ride in dresses because sometimes I am riding dressed up for my destination.
Up until quite recently, I didn’t have a bike that was really meant to be ridden while wearing a skirt, and my only women specific bike was a hardtail mountain bike, which I use for riding trails almost exclusively. Then suddenly, I acquired a Trek Chelsea District*, which has a mixte frame. Public Bikes offers a handy guide on different frame types. Both men and women can and do ride mixte frames, but mine is sold as a women’s specific design, so it is designed to better fit women’s proportions (more on women’s specific design in a future post).
Both of my other commuter bikes (a Salsa Casseroll and Trek Earl) have a more aggressive geometry, which means the bike has lower handlebars. Neither bikes are in any way meant for racing, but they are a bit more aerodynamic than the Chelsea. I never had much interest in a women specific city bike. Really, it is my husband’s fault for getting a similar bike for his very short commute and then deciding that I should have one too.
As it turns out, though, the Chelsea is an excellent city bike. It has a basket with a place to hang a U-lock! I sit up straight so it is easier on my back. Also, I can sit up and look around much more easily, making cityscapes quite enjoyable. Now, I have no intention of giving up on other types of bikes, but there is something pleasant about riding upright on occasion, as it turns out. However, I prefer to think of myself as stately– a gender neutral term– rather than lady-like.
*Full disclosure: My brother-in-law works for Trek, but I have no affiliation to Trek and this bike was purchased at a local bike shop.
Companies have long used images of scantily clad, naked or simply strangely posed women to sell products, and the bicycling industry is no exception. Recently, the bicycle company Colnago has been criticized for images featuring women posed next to high-end bicycles posed in strange positions wearing impractical clothing. Colnago has since apologized, although it is yet to be seen whether the apology will lead to any meaningful change in their advertising.The advertisement has gotten enough attention that Bicycling Magazine and Cycling Weekly have both posted articles criticizing Colnago.
In the 1890s, bicycling companies– particularly French bicycling companies according to one source— sometimes uses illustrations of nude women to sell bikes, although “sexy” images of women on bicycles dates back much earlier. Earlier this year, Aaron Cripps briefly addressed the history of objectifying women in cycling advertisements starting in the 1890s on his blog Cycling History.
Advertisements in the 1890s often included illustrations of naked or nearly-naked who accompanied bicycles in impossible positions. For example, the figure in the Cycles Gladiator poster is flying along with the bicycle rather than actually riding it. The wings on the bicycle reference Hermes, the messenger god, who wore winged sandals, as does the nude figure who is meant to be an idealized archetype of a Woman, rather than any particular individual.
Although there were many advertisements during this period that were aimed at women, these certainly were not. The nude figures tend to be seen with men’s diamond frame bicycles, rather than the type of bicycle most women actually rode at this time. As the art historian T. J. Clark wrote in The Painting of Modern Life: “A nude, to repeat, is a picture for men to look at, in which Woman is constructed as an object of somebody else’s desire.” Her main purpose is to be desirable.
In the case of some of the posters one could make the argument that they are art– or at least that there is artistry and imagination in their creation. Granted, if the artists were alive today I might be tempted to comment on the unlikelihood of flying next to a bicycle naked or standing on the saddle while dressed in gossamer fabric, but I don’t think they were trying to be all that literal. The French posters may have been referencing Marianne, a symbol of the French Republic who is a form of Lady Liberty. The images imply that riding a bicycle is liberating, while also providing an excuse to display a nude figure.
So what exactly is the problem with companies using sexualized images of women now? The women are actually wearing more clothes than their 19th century counterparts and it can hardly be argued that models are generally a realistic representation of how people look everyday. It’s also safe to say that women in the nineteenth century often weren’t taken seriously as human beings– if they even were considered human beings– and that replicating nineteenth century ideas is probably not the most forward thinking thing to do.
For me, and apparently for other cyclists as well, the advertisements are so infuriating because they suggest that women aren’t serious cyclists and shouldn’t be taken seriously as potential bike customers. Instead, they imply that the company believes they will sell more bikes if they put them next to attractive women, as if the purchase of a bike includes (at no extra cost!) an attractive woman. As if it were common to ride a road bike while high-heels or socks. It’s fairly clear that these are not some kind of innovative clip-less compatible socks, as we can see that there are no cleats on the bottom of her feet.
The issue isn’t what individual women choose to ride in. The images feature models who are posing, not candid shots of women with their own bikes. If a woman wants to attempt to ride in heels, well, that seems like an uncomfortable choice, but I am sure it has been done (although most likely not too often on a bike like that). Other bike companies manage to have advertisements that show women actually riding bikes, or fixing their own bikes. I regularly see women riding in everything from mini-skirts to commuter pants to cycling kits. But you know what I have never seen once in real life? A woman standing next to a bike with her butt in the air while she glances over her shoulder while dressed in socks.