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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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.

 

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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.