Today, one might think of the term “women’s bicycle” in a couple of different ways. Casual riders may think of women’s bicycles based primarily on appearance. Although many men also ride drop-frame (step-through) or mixte frame bicycles, at least in the United States, they often are thought of as women’s bikes because they allow the rider to wear a skirt more easily than a diamond-frame bicycle. This understanding of masculine and feminine bicycles dates back a long time.
However, there are also performance bicycles designed with women in mind. Women’s Specific Design (or WSDTM as Trek calls them) are meant to fit average female proportions better than other bicycles. As a side note, there is an inherent problem with thinking of bicycles as “normal” bicycles and women specific bicycle’s, rather than as men specific bicycles and women specific bicycles, but more on that later.
Since the very earliest bicycles- velocipedes- manufacturers have developed bicycles for women. For women who rode velocipedes, there were early drop frames, which allowed for shortened skirts over bloomers. Women’s velocipedes had seats, while men’s had saddles, which had more to do with propriety than a deep understanding of how anatomical differences might affect comfort.
In 1885, the Rover, which some argue is the first modern safety bicycle was introduced at the British bicycle exhibition known as the Stanley Show. In 1887, Dan Albone introduced the first women’s safety bicycle known as the “Anfield Ivel.” The first mass-produced women’s safety bicycle, made the Starley brothers, who also invented the rover, hit the market in 1889.
The first women’s bicycles were designed to accommodate a woman in skirts. Some women did dress in knickerbockers or other modified costumes that allowed them to ride a diamond frame, but it was not the norm. Drop-frame bicycles had disadvantages. They had less structural integrity and thus tended to be heavier than men’s bicycles. Women riding in long skirts were forced to add accessories like heavy chain guards in order to ride safely. Still, specialized women’s bicycles contributed to making bicycling acceptable. They allowed women to wear skirts and also did not force women to straddle a bar, which had sexual connotations. Additionally, their heavier weight made it hard to ride very quickly, which was considered unfeminine.
In a later (post-vacation) entry, I’ll discuss modern women’s bicycles and why there is much more to them than being able to ride them in skirts. Indeed, for performance bicycles, skirts don’t come into the picture at all.
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.
They were an easy target to ridicule, 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.
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.
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 where 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.