Women’s Bicycles (part 1)

1024px-ladies_safety_bicycles1889
Image from an 1889 advertisement for a ladies’ safety bicycle, Note the drop-frame (also known as a step-through frame), chain guard, and skirt guard, Via Wikimedia Commons

 

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.

 

800px-peugeot_mixte_px18
Peugeot Mixte, Via Wikipedia

 

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.

 

Velocipede_for_Ladies
Women’s velocipede. Note that it has a seat instead of a saddle.

 

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.

women_vintage_bicycle_museum_21
Two women with bicycles, c. 1895. Via oldbike.eu

 

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.

 

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.

 

09.50.918_F
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.

 

392px-Bicycle_Club_Montreal_1885
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.

 

1mens_costume
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.

 

220px-Taylor-Marshall_1900
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.

 

On research: Velocipede vortex

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.

 

The importance of having pedals

Pedals are, of course, fundamental to bicycles. There was a bicycle-like invention known as a draisine or a hobby horse invented in 1817. However, bicycle scholars like David V. Herlihy argue that it is not technically a bicycle, as it lacked pedals and cranks. Regardless, with the exception of striders for toddlers, bicycles produced today have pedals. Before I got into bicycling, pedals were not something I had ever thought about. My pedals were always plastic with yellow reflectors. Then I bought a bike that didn’t come with pedals and decided to learn to ride with clipless pedals. The name seems contradictory, as your feet are attached to the pedals, but more on that later. Sheldon Brown and John Allen provide a detailed account of different types of pedals and how they work.

Velocipede made by Andrew Muir and Co, Manchester, England, 1869, Courtesy of Oldbike.eu
Note the pedals on this velocipede made by Andrew Muir and Co, Manchester, England, 1869, Courtesy of Oldbike.eu

Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing describe the development of pedals in Bicycle Design. Since the 1860s, there have been many different types of pedals invented. Velocipedists’ pedals were quite different from modern pedals, as riders rested their instep, rather than the ball of their foot, on the pedal.  Flat pedals were first used with the high-wheel bicycle (today it tends to be called a penny farthing). In 1876, rat trap pedals were invented, which look very similar to many modern pedals.

Campagnolo pedal with strap and toe clip, early 1980s
Campagnolo pedal with strap and toe clip, early 1980s

By the late 1880s, pedals with toe-clips started to become more common, even on high-wheels. Toe clips kept feet from flying off, which can be dangerous when traveling quickly.  More serious cyclists began to wear special shoes that locked into their pedal along with toe clips. However, it can be difficult to get out of toe clips, particularly if a cyclist uses additional straps. From there, so-called clipless pedals were invented around 1894. Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing write: “Confusingly, at the heart of each and every so-called clipless pedal is a clip. Such pedals are called clipless because they don’t have an external toe clip.” Instead, they have a cleat on the sole of the shoe that locks into a fastener on the pedal. After the 1890s, the clipless pedal mostly disappeared, and until the 1970s serious cyclists used toe clips and straps to keep their feet secure. Bike-advisor.com includes a visual of different types of pedals.

Today, there are a range of different clipless pedals available, but many riders still use toe clips as well. I’ve never ridden with toe clips, but I do usually ride clipless. There are two main categories of clipless pedals: Those designed for mountain biking and those designed for road biking. What is the difference between the two? Mountain bike pedals are typically designed so that they are easier to clip in and out of, as mountain bikers are more likely to have to put a foot down unexpectedly than road cyclists. Mountain bike shoes generally have some some tread on the bottom, which makes it easier to walk, as mountain biking sometimes involves having to walk your bike. Road shoes tend to be very difficult to walk in, as they have a smooth surface with a cleat protruding under the instep. Road pedals have a wider, more stable platform and help improve performance.

Left: Sidi road shoes Right: Bontrager mountain bike pedals at right.
Left: Sidi road shoes                     Right: Bontrager mountain bike shoes at right.

Sheldon Brown explains that clipless pedals work similarly to ski binding. Indeed, the first functional clipless pedals were made by the company Look, which first made skis (my road bike is equipped with Look pedals). Clipless pedals engage with the cleats on the bottom of the cyclist’s shoes, locking the shoes onto the pedals. You clip out of clipless pedals by twisting your heel outward.

John Allen recommends mountain bike pedals for urban cycling, recreational riding, and touring, and you can read his post for information on different types of mountain bike pedals. On my primary bike I use Shimano SPD pedals  which are virtually indestructible. Learning to ride clipless was certainly unnerving, and as a less experienced cyclist, the idea of making it more difficult to put a foot down seemed absurd. The first time I went out for a ride around my neighborhood I forgot to clip out and promptly tipped over. A bit embarrassing, but I was fine. I also had some trouble on steep hills at first, but failure to clip out has never caused me to be more than very slightly injured.

My first clipless pedals were flat on one side and were Shimano SPDs on the other. This type of pedal worked well when I was a beginner who was relying primarily on one bike, as I could wear regular shoes if I wanted to. While one could feasibly ride a short distance with regular shoes and clipless pedals, most clipless pedals have a much smaller surface area, so it is hard to keep your foot from sliding off. The downside of this type of pedal, is that the pedals always seem to end up on the opposite side of where you want them to be.

Eventually I switched to double-sided Shimano SPDs for my touring bike, which meant I always had to wear specialized shoes. Sometimes this is inconvenient because I always have to bring a change of shoes, but I prefer not having to worry about my feet flying off my pedals. Additionally, clipless pedals or toe clips make for more efficient riding. I ended up deciding to write about pedals after getting my fifth (I know) bike recently, which is a bare bones single speed that I ride with platform pedals. As it turns out, as much as I love riding clipless, sometimes it is just simpler to throw on a pair of street shoes, grab my bike, and head out the door.

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.

A brief history of the velocipede

Exant second generation velocipede, circa 1868 By tetedelacourse (Velocipede Michaux-1) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Exant second generation velocipede, circa 1868 
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 American Velocipede, 1868, a wood engraving from Harper's Weekly
The American Velocipede, 1868, a wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly

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.

Women's velocipede. Note that it has a seat instead of a saddle.
Women’s velocipede. Note that it has a seat instead of a saddle.

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.

Footnotes

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.