Men’s bicycling clothes

 

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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.

 

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The safety bicycle

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.

 

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.

 

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“King of Scorchers,” c. 1894. Via oldbike.eu

 

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.

 

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Two women with bicycles, c. 1895. Via oldbike.eu

 

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.

 

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Marshall “Major” Taylor, c. 1900.

 

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.

 

 

The high-wheel in the 1870s

Ariel high-wheel, photo by Mike deMille
Ariel high-wheel, photo by Mike deMille

High-wheels were developed when it became apparent that the bigger the front wheel on a velocipede relative to the back wheel, the faster one could ride. Some high-wheels had a front wheel of 60 inches, and a back wheel of only 16. To modern eyes, high-wheel bicycles look like a strange and dangerous invention, which is an accurate but also overly simplified interpretation.

The high-wheel lasted much longer than the velocipede. According to Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History, the first generation of high-wheels was developed in 1869, before the velocipede craze had ended. James Moore, a British racer, started to use French high-wheels in both Britain and France, prompting his competitors to adopt them as well.

However, it was in Britain that the high-wheel, or the bicycle as it was now known, first became popular. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) halted bicycle production in France, making Britain the center of bicycle production. Bicycle racing was central to the high-wheel’s development, as watching races remained popular. Bicycle manufacturers continued to improve the high-wheels design, cutting down its weight, which increased its speed.

The high-wheel was certainly dangerous, but it was also more effective machine than the velocipede. Glen Norcliffe pointed out in The Ride to Modernity, many young men were drawn to the high-wheel at least partially because riding one was a risky endeavor. One of the biggest challenges with the high-wheel was mounting and dismounting. In order to get on, riders often ran along the bicycle to get it moving and then leaped into the saddle. Another option was putting one foot on the step located over the back wheel and pushing against the ground with the other foot before hauling oneself up. Some high-wheels were equipped with spoon breaks or roller breaks, but many preferred to ride without them and simply backpedaled to slow down.

The high-wheel became popular among well-to-do young men in Britain starting around the mid-1870s. Young men formed clubs at Cambridge and Oxford, and bicycle clubs became increasingly common. Clubs, however, were quite exclusive and tended to be open only to relatively wealthy men of a certain class. In 1878, the first high-wheels arrived in the United States in Boston and soon spread to Harvard and then to other Ivy League schools.

During the 1870s, cycling was a highly classed and gendered activity. Men who rode high-wheels often wanted their sport to remain exclusive. Being able to afford a high-wheel, along with club dues, and a uniform indicated that the cyclist belonged to the leisure class, as who else could afford a machine with no real practical purpose? It was also impossible for a woman to ride a high-wheel without cross-dressing or at least adopting dramatically altered garb. Later on, many cycling clubs welcomed women, but at this stage bicycling was in no way democratic.