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.
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.
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.
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.
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.