In defense of spandex

Over several years of reading mainstream articles about cycling, I’ve noticed a tendency for writers for criticize cyclists for wearing spandex. Henry Jeffreys, a cyclist who has worn spandex in the past stated (presumably somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that it’s “bad for the soul.” Certainly, spandex cycling clothes are not the most flattering, but does one always have to look good when exercising?

I often care about looking good while biking. I was rather mortified on my first date – a road ride- with my now husband when I saw that I was wearing spandex and he was not. Generally, If my main purpose for going on a ride is to get somewhere, then I’ll usually dress for my destination more than my mode of transit, although bicycling does tend to put a damper on wearing silk. My commute is only two miles, so I bike in whatever it is that I’m planning to wear that day, which might consist of a dress or a blouse with a skirt or narrow pants. When I ride to work, I also tend to ride my upright bike with platform pedals so I don’t even need to change my shoes.

For many people, casual riding (or even less casual riding) in every day clothes may work perfectly well. Much of the time, I’m happy to throw on whatever and bike. However, spandex cycling clothing serves a purpose. Well, it can serve several purposes, but I’m not here to argue for or against wearing team kits when not racing or whether or not riding covered in logos is problematic. I’d argue that it’s main purpose is comfort, and regardless of how silly it may look, it certainly succeeds at being comfortable.

As much as I don’t especially enjoy standing around in padded shorts, a chamois really does make a huge difference on longer rides. I have regretted most rides over about 15 miles when I haven’t worn cycling shorts, and yes, that includes longer rides on my cruiser. I don’t especially care about jokes about spandex. Trust me, I get that bib shorts look silly, but I am troubled by the animosity towards cyclists, which seems to be magnified when cyclists wear spandex. I also realize that on the internet one can find someone who hates pretty much anything imaginable, so I try not to read to much into it, but here I go, reading into it.

Understandably, people associate cyclists who ride very fast regardless of context with spandex, but I’ve seen people do absurd and dangerous things on bicycles wearing all kinds of clothes (never a ballgown, but I’ll let you know if that ever happens). But this association between cyclists in spandex and biking like a jerk does not necessarily reflect reality.

Jeffreys wrote that it’s more common for Lycra-clad male cyclists to act like maniacs, and that it’s rare to see women who aren’t racing wearing Lycra. His statement is at least anecdotally accurate, but I don’t really think it’s their tight clothing that’s the problem. I also see plenty of women riding in spandex, although it’s true that most of us aren’t wearing team kits. Certainly, I’d love to see more women, perhaps myself included, joining racing teams, but that’s tangential for the moment.

Not being part of a team, my spandex cycling apparel is admittedly a bit visually quieter than that the costumes worn by your average male road rider. Yet, it’s functionally pretty much the same: the shorts protect me from discomfort and the jersey allows me to carry objects without having to load down my road bike. Unlike when I ride in a skirt, I don’t have to worry as much about my clothing staying in place.

Without conducting research, I can’t say why many cyclists choose spandex. I’d hazard a guess, however, that many people would say that when going on long rides, it’s the best choice because it’s more comfortable and practical than any other option.

 

 

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Dressing for the Safety Bicycle

Quite a lot has already been written about women’s bicycling dress in the 1890s, although my dissertation is the most detailed research on this project that I have been able to find. There is, however, a fair amount of misinformation about what women wore. A common claim is that the majority of women gave up corsets and skirts when they adopted the bicycle, which just isn’t true.

It’s certainly a compelling story- that women discovered the bicycle, threw off their cumbersome garments, and rode into a liberated future. Yet, while there are numerous visual examples bloomers (or knickerbockers), there is not much evidence that they ever became the norm for cycling. They often were considered peculiar and even immodest. They revealed more of a woman’s legs than typical dress and their split form made it possible for women to straddle a diamond-frame bicycle, such as the one pictured below.

 

punch_magazine
Cartoon from Punch, via OIdbike.eu

 

They were an easy target to make fun off and satiric magazines like Punch, Puck, and Life regularly made fun of women in bloomers. The myriad images are no doubt part of the reason that so many people believe bloomers were common.

 

Figure 061
Brown Wool Cycling Costume with Divided Skirt, c. 1896-1898, American, 2009.300.532a-d, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Mr. and Mrs. Morton Sultzer, 1979

 

So if women didn’t wear bloomers, what did they wear? Typically, women wore shortened skirts, although how short could vary widely. Some skirts were only three inches above the ground, whereas more daring women might wear a skirt that fell to just below the knee. It’s impossible to establish the average length, but most skirts were probably between lower calf and ankle length. Some women also wore skirts that were divided, almost like extra-wide culottes. These skirts required much more fabric, but some writers believed that they were safer and kept women’s skirts in place. The ideal divided skirt would look just like an ordinary skirt.

 

Figure 044
Side View of Woman on Bicycle, mid 1890s, via Oldbike.eu

 

Women typically wore matching or coordinated jackets for cycling, but they also could wear a shirtwaist (blouse) tucked into their skirt. Some of the jackets I studied had boning for added structure. Many women continued to wear corsets, although tight-lacing was not recommended. There were special bicycling corsets, although in some cases companies may have marketed a special “bicycling” corset to convince women they needed more corsets. Some women adopted less structured corsets or health waists, which could have less boning or even cording in place of metal bones. Corsets would have provided bust support, although I have found no written examples were this purpose is articulated.

To the modern eye, many cycling costumes may not appear all that much different than other types of every day dress, but there are functional differences. Cycling costumes tended to be made out of sturdy wool, although there were linen costumes, as well. Some had features such leather stitched around the hem, which would protect the skirt from ripping if it got caught (and presumably also made it harder for the skirt to catch). Some women would not have purchased or sewed specialized costumes, but there were numerous options available for those who had the means and inclination.

Men’s bicycling clothes

 

692px-The_American_Velocipede
The American Velocipede, 1868, a wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly

 

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.

 

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A men’s waistcoat, circa 1774-1793, Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

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.

 

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Photograph, Mr. McLeod, Bicycle Club, Montreal, QC, 1885, Silver salts on glass – Gelatin dry plate process. Note the military style of his jacket. By Wm. Notman & Son [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

 

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Advertisement for two types of men’s cycling costumes, sack jacket on the left, and a Norfolk jacket on the right, from the CTC gazette, 1899, Via oldbike.eu

 

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.

 

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Marshall “Major” Taylor, Public Domain, Via Wikipedia

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.

 

How “lady cyclists” dressed for tricycling

 

Bicycling, c. 1887
Bicycling / Hy Sandham; aquarelle print by L. Prang & Co., 1887. Library of Congress.

 

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.

 

walking dress c 1882 DT247641
Walking dress, circa 1882. Women rode in dresses similar to this one. Metropolitan Museum of Art, DT247641.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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Smartly dressed couple seated on an 1886-model quadracycle for two. The South Portico of the White House, Washington, D.C., in the background. Via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.