Cycling’s multifaceted ties to women’s mobility
My daughter’s biking outfit is basically whatever she’s wearing that day, plus a helmet (and maybe a reminder about wearing shoes.) This is of course, completely normal to her, and it’s wonderfully hard for her to relate to a time where such an ensemble would have been impossible. However, the fact that she can might be wearing pants, or shorts, or bike shorts under a skirt is in part thanks to the bike itself, as they helped shake up expectations about women’s fashion back in the 1880s, right down to the 14 pounds of underwear.
A ‘proper’ dress in the Victorian Era was long, heavy, and often required some degree of infrastructure to support it, including bones and corsets. Layers of petticoats may have looked impressive, but they weren’t especially conducive to activity, which prompted Amelia Jenks Bloomer to start pushing the idea of a garment somewhere between a skirt and some very puffy pants, inspired in part by Turkish ‘harem pants‘. As a bit of a compromise to contemporary fashion, the proposed trousers that would eventually come to be known as Bloomers still covered the leg to the ankle, and included adornments like frilled cuffs. They didn’t catch on in a big way until after Mrs. Bloomer’s death, but when they did it was partly thanks to the rise of the bicycle.
Benefited by bicycling
In the 1890s, the so-called safety bicycle was becoming widely available, including to women who saw it as a way to get about on their own, without the expense or fuss of a carriage or horse. The ‘safety’ portion of the name was in reference to the two, equally-sized wheels, rather than the one large and one small wheel on high wheeler bikes, which were sporting equipment more than transportation. The drop frame on safety bikes better allowed for a dress, but concerns over frocks being caught in a wheel boosted the value of bloomers, not as fashion or politics, but just being practical (not that the other layers of what bloomers represented were completely lost on anyone.) The rise of sensible, personal transportation lead Susan B. Anthony to call bikes the “freedom machine,” and a number of publications espoused their value as a form of empowerment to women.
Fashion inches forward
This isn’t to say that women everywhere were suddenly biking to clothing stores to get the season’s latest bloomer designs. High society took some time to accept women’s cycling outfits, even more conservative options like a split skirt, intend simply to enable leg movement. The Society for Rational Dress, formed in 1881, actively campaigned for modernized clothing, espousing the virtues of boneless dresses and only seven pounds of underwear, cutting the normal amount of bunched cotton and wool undergarments in half.
These early efforts did start building real momentum though, and coupled with improvements in textile production, more options for more active women of the Edwardian era were becoming available, including innovations like the sport corset– a flexible piece of underwear with elastic straps, specifically marketed for cycling. A woman from 1898 would probably still gasp at what my daughter wears for a bike ride, but she’d probably be happy to see her peddling down the street in the first place.
Source: Rational Dress Reform Fashion History - Mrs Bloomer by Pauline Weston Thomas, Fashion Era