Selling bicycles or women?

Facebook/Colnago
Facebook/Colnago

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.

Facebook/Colnago
Facebook/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.

Bicycle poster, circa 1895. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Bicycle poster, circa 1895. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Advertisement for Bicyclettes Terrot shows a different ideal. Lucien Baylac, via Wikimedia Commons
Advertisement for Bicyclettes Terrot shows a different ideal. Lucien Baylac, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Jean de Paleologu via Wikimedia Commons
Jean de Paleologu via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Facebook/Colnago
Facebook/Colnago

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.

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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.

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.