Monday, May 9, 2011

Women and Their Bicycles

With all this nice weather that Toronto has been having I have finally been able to take my bicycle out. The first outfit that I wore on my bike was a pair of incredibly wide leg sailor trousers, so I had to tie up my right pant leg with red ribbon (so much better than rope) to prevent my pants getting caught in the chain. I don't think I'll wear those trousers on my bike often, and afterwards I decided to make a few more pairs of shorts for the summer- one of which is a beautiful bright pink that I can't wait to show you. Anyway, this whole debacle brought to mind a magazine article from the late nineteenth century that I had read last year when I was researching for my final project in my fashion history course and since it's such a wonderful article I thought I would share it with you.
It's an article called "Bicycling for Women" from the April 1894 issue of the Ladies' Standard Magazine and the entire seven page article is dedicated to what women should wear when they are bicycling. If I found a pair of wide leg trousers difficult to cycle in, please, let us just imagine cycling in those huge skirts that women wore at the end of the nineteenth century! They were heavy twilled wool, and had cotton petticoats underneath. For a women's magazine from this period I actually found this article to be pretty heavily weighted towards the pro bloomer side of the debate: "fashion's decree has always required woman to clothe herself in draggling skirts whether on foot or horseback. Earnest en deavor has been, and efforts still continue to be made to secure emancipation from them, by the advocates of dress reform." But the article is mostly interviews of women cyclists, so the magazine never really has to take full responsibility for the arguments they are making for women to wear trousers when cycling. I know it sounds silly discussing the controversy of wearing pants as a woman, but even with magazine articles such as this one many, if not most women from this period still wore skirts when cycling. Along with bloomers, "Turkish" trousers (harem pants are everywhere these days) are also encouraged in this article for they "are very pretty and show how easily a woman may dress becomingly for cycling, and at the same time be free from the trammels of skirts with their disadvantages." It's obvious that women at the time were struggling with what to wear to be safe when cycling, while still appearing to be a woman.
 Everything about bicycling and women was controversial when the bike first became popular. This Punch cartoon from the September 19th issue from 1999 shows that women who bicycled were accused of stepping outside of their gender rolls. The image of a manly women cycling beside a feminine looking man were very popular at this time. It just shows how a little thing like a bicycle could totally uproot the incredibly strict gender rolls of the nineteenth century. But as we all know, both bicycling and trousers never left us once we tried them, because what's better than riding a bicycle in the spring!
And for all of you Torontonians, here's a lovely picture that I found in the Toronto Public Reference Library of St. Annette Methodist Church men's and women's cycling club from 1890.
Works Cited
Marks, Patricia. Bicycles, bangs, and bloomers: the new woman in the popular press. Kentucky: The University of Kentucky   Press, 1990.  Heilmann, Ann. “Contesting/Consuming Femininities.” In New Woman Fiction: Women Writing First-Wave Feminism, 15-42. London: MacMillan Press Ltd., 2000.  
McCrone, Kathleen E. “Women’s Sport and Dress Reform.” In Sport and the Physical Emancipation of English Women, 1870-1914, 216-246. London: Routledge, 1988. 
Next week I'll be in Philidelphia but when I get back I hope to share with you some of the summer clothes I have been making, oh and I bought the most amazing 1920s dress pattern, so maybe I can share that as well. Have a lovely week! 


  1. I've been writing loads of papers about cycling recently, and recently read a very interesting article about cycling and social class. As for riding in skirts, it's perfectly doable these days, but I don't know how they managed in long skirts...

  2. Oh man, I enjoyed reading those so much. I bike pretty much everywhere in my flat little city, and I sure get some funny looks on my old Avanti mountain bike in a 1950s dress. I usually bike one-handed and gather up the volume of my skirt in the other hand, to avoid getting any fabric caught in the chain or wheel. I mostly wear stockings with garter belts under my dresses, and I like to think that somewhere, at some point, catching a glimpse has made someone's day!

  3. This brightened up my morning - bike riding in a voluminous riding uprooting gender roles in the 19th Century...fascinating.

  4. what a wonderful post! so insightful to see things like this. shame the politics of cycling in heels doesnt get a look in...xx

  5. Oh I'm glad someone else finds this stuff interesting besides me : )