On the evening of October 9, 1893, at a prayer-meeting of the High Street Methodist Church in Binghamton, New York, Samuel Stanley rose to address the congregation. The reason? The purchase of a bicycle by Mrs Burrows, a widow and active worker in the church. Stanley, warming to his subject, denounced cycling as unladylike, unchristian, and a disgrace to the church, and the pastor, Reverend John Bradshaw, sided with him on the issue.
Three years later in 1896, Charlotte Smith and Virginia N. Lount of the Women’s Rescue League issued a resolution in which they bewailed the “great curse … inflicted on the people of this country because of the present bicycle craze.” Not only did they view imprudent use of the bicycle as a cause of “the diseases peculiar to women,” but “immoderate bicycling” was “to be deplored because of the evil associations and opportunities offered by cycling sports.”
“The bicycle,” opined the moral guardians, “is the devil’s advocate agent morally and physically.” Calling on all “true women and clergymen” to support them, they denounced cycling by women as “indecent and vulgar,” and for good measure demanded that “married women should not resort to riding the wheel unless they wish to prevent motherhood.” In Britain the satirical magazine, Punch, captured negative attitudes towards women cyclists in gentler style in its 1896 issue.
Though such opinions may sound strange to us in today’s Western world we should remember that the role and place of women in contemporary society was very different. The social lives of many young women were strictly supervised, particularly those of the middle and upper classes whose relative affluence placed them in the best position to enjoy the new sport of cycling. The bicycle offered women freedom from the constraints of their daily lives, a freedom that was not easily received in many quarters but which was reluctantly accepted as cycling gained in popularity among women. Smith and Lount’s contemporary, the newspaperman Joseph Bishop, alluded to this in his 1896 essay on the ‘Social and Economic Influence of the Bicycle’, when he referred to the fact that, “Parents who will not allow their daughters to accompany young men to the theatre without chaperonage allow them to go bicycle-riding alone with young men.”
Of particular concern was the introduction of new styles of dress for women in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. In 1851 Amelia Jenks Bloomer, an advocate for women’s rights and the editor of The Lily, published an article calling for changes in dress that would be less restrictive and make personal adornment of secondary importance. Amelia and other women put their ideas into practice, adopting a style of dress that utilised a shorter skirt worn over a pair of ‘Turkish trousers’ or pantaloons. Following publication of her article and the press response it garnered, such clothing earned itself the popular name of ‘bloomers’. The response was largely negative as typified by the Bloomsburg, PA, newspaper, The Star of the North, in January 1856, when it argued that the passionate advocacy of bloomers by women was equally as immodest as the offending article of clothing. The Yorkville Enquirer was less diplomatic in 1860 when it advised its readers that while “a beautiful woman is beautiful in any dress … ugly women would better take care” and that “short thick fat folks must beware of Bloomers.” The paper concluded that “the stare of the stranger, the leer of the passer-by, the significant smile of the young idler, the shrug of the staider folk, the cutting remark … is more than the experiment pays for.”
With such attitudes prevalent in contemporary society the dress reform movement in America stalled. In 1854 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a fellow reformer of Amelia Bloomer, wrote to Susan B. Anthony to advise her to return to traditional dress because the “cup of ridicule is greater than you can bear.” Bloomer herself abandoned ‘freedom dress’ in 1859 and the National Dress Reform Association, founded in 1856, disbanded in 1865 amid concerns that negative attention on dress reform would hamper other reform efforts such as temperance and suffrage.
The new sport of cycling and its adoption by women was to bring the issue of dress back into the public arena. The early ordinaries or penny-farthings were largely unsuited to women, given the restrictions of their dress which made mounting and riding near impossible. The refinement of the tricycle in the 1870’s offered women a solution with a machine that allowed them to ride safely and with propriety in normal dress. In Britain Queen Victoria ordered two Salvo Sociable’s from Coventry manufacturer James Starley giving a valuable endorsement to both the machine and the acceptability of women cyclists.
The popularity of cycling among women reinvigorated the debate on women’s clothing. Deviation from normal standards of dress was considered unacceptable yet cycling demonstrated the unsuitability of such modes of dress for physical activity. It was restrictive, heavy, and with its varying levels of drapery, depending on the vagaries of fashion, could also be a danger when it snagged on the working parts of a riders mount. In 1881 the Rational Dress Society was founded in London which aimed to “promote the adoption according to individual taste and convenience of a style of dress based upon considerations of health, comfort, and beauty, and to deprecate constant changes of fashion which cannot be recommended on any of these grounds.” The Society’s president and co-founder, Lady Florence Harberton, was herself a keen cyclist and an advocate of exercise for women. Recognizing the restrictive nature of women’s clothes she advocated the wearing of a divided skirt over a pair of bloomers or other under trousers.
A further development in bicycle design was to give added impetus to the dress reform movement. John Kemp Starley’s 1885 second design for the Rover bicycle gave the world the first commercially successful ‘safety’ bicycle and revolutionized the cycling industry. Between 1890 and 1900 the number of bicycle manufacturing firms in America rose from 27 to 312, with a corresponding growth in the production of accessories, including clothing. For women the safety bicycle further demonstrated the lack of fit between existing acceptable clothing and the sport of cycling. With its horizontal cross-bar the safety was unsuited to the voluminous floor-length skirts dictated by contemporary tastes and fashions, highlighting the clear need for an alternative mode of dress.
As one cyclist put it, “a special adaptation of dress is absolutely necessary, for skirts, while they have not hindered women from climbing to the topmost branches of higher education, may prove fatal in down-hill coasting.” The danger was highlighted by stories such as that which appeared in Sporting Life in 1891 when an unnamed woman recalled “skimming along like a bird, when there was an awful tug at my dress and a cracking sound. Before I knew what was the matter I found myself lying on the road with the safety on top of me. My dress was so tightly wound around the crank bracket that I could not get up until I got free.”
Though reform of women’s cycling dress had its advocates the typical response was negative. The Women’s Rescue League pointed to the impropriety of dress that made “women not only unwomanly, but immodest as well.” In England the Cheltenham Looker-On drew its readers’ attention to the ugliness of rational dress arguing that the costumes on display at the Crystal Palace show in December 1895 were “the most convincing proof that the more pronounced style of rational dress is singularly unbecoming to the female form.” Femininity, or rather the perceived lack of it, was one of the main arguments against rational dress, particularly against bloomers and other styles of trousers for women. As Harpers magazine wrote, “we do not hesitate to express our repugnance to costumes so unfeminine and unbecoming.” Even supporters of women’s cycling expressed their opposition to bloomers. “The question of the proper dress for bicycling is still in doubt,” wrote Mrs Reginald de Koven in The Cosmopolitan. “In smaller cities like Cleveland, Buffalo, and notably in Chicago and Boston, the bloomer costume has been largely used. This tendency must be deprecated.” Mrs de Koven instead advocated a shorter skirt over knickerbockers to avoid the “enormous loss of the gracefulness which every woman should religiously consider.”
Reports in the press draw attention to the strength of the reaction to women in cycling dress within society. In 1895 the Freeland Tribune, under the headline “The Pneu-Matic Woman” reported on a broken engagement when the fiancée of a young man appeared in front of him in a pair of bloomers. Outraged by this the man ordered his fiancée to dismount and to return indoors to change into skirts or the “marriage would not take place as he drew the line at bloomers on a bike.” The young lady, “a “pneu” woman in every sense” promptly drew off her diamond ring and handed it to the man with the observation that she would not discard bloomers for him or anyone else. In San Franscisco Mrs Annie Kirk sued her dentist, W. A. Atwood, in 1897 when he refused to examine her teeth after she arrived at his office on her bicycle wearing bloomers. The dentist apparently fearing that maids and matrons might flee if they came upon him treating a woman dressed in the offending apparell.
Objections from the pulpit were particularly strong with clergymen of all denominations roundly denouncing bloomers. Prominent amongst them was Dr J. B. Hawthorne, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta. Critical of what he saw as “indelicate and unwomanly conduct” Hawthorne roundly denounced the new woman movement as “born of infidelity”. The “bicycle woman” had been entered by Satan and by coveting “the prerogatives, honors and pleasures of men” made herself “despicable in the eyes of all people of virtuous sensibilities.” Such views may have been in the minds of the board of trustees at the College Point seminary in Flushing, New York, when they decided in 1895 to ban women teachers from riding bicycles to and from the school. Though the ladies in question wore skirts the board feared that “if we don’t stop them now they will want to be in style with the New York women and wear bloomers … we are determined to stop our teachers in time before they go that far.” Cycling was, a member of the board commented, “conducive to the creation of immoral thoughts”
In Britain reaction was equally strong. In 1894 the landlady of an inn near Epsom in Surrey popular with cyclists seeking refreshment refused entry to two young ladies who arrived in knickerbockers commenting that “There are ladies and gentlemen who would be shocked at you.” The landlady offered the ladies skirts to wear but they refused and rode away. In October 1898 Lady Harberton made headlines when she was refused service in the coffee-room of the Hautboy Hotel by the landlady, Mrs Martha Sprague, because she was wearing rational dress. Harberton, insisting she be served in the coffee-room as any member of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, as per the existing agreement between the Club and the hotel, was instead directed to the common-bar, where she found only working men who were drinking and smoking. Objecting to this, Harberton left the premises. The Cyclists’ Touring Club took Harberton’s case up, bringing an action against Mrs Sprague in April 1899 on the grounds that she had entered into an agreement to receive and entertain Club members as ordinary coffee-room customers, and that innkeepers, who were obliged by law to provide refreshment, could not choose their guests or decline them service on the basis of dress.
In her defence Mrs Sprague reminded the court that she had not refused service, but had directed Lady Harberton to another room, informing the court that in the 13 years she had held her licence at the Hautboy she had never admitted ladies in rational dress to the coffee-room unless they had brought skirts with them. In summing-up the Chairman of the court reminded the jury that the issue they should address was not the clothing worn by Harberton but whether service had been refused and whether the common-bar was a decent and respectable room in which refreshment might be offered to a guest. After briefly deliberating, the jury found itself in favour of Mrs Sprague.
Women in rational dress also drew the attentions of the police. In Victoria, British Columbia, Ethel Delmont, “an enthusiastic wheel woman,” gained notoriety when she wore bloomers during a bicycle ride in March 1895, earning herself a police visit in which she was informed that any repetition of her performance would result in a police summons on the charge of causing a disturbance on the public street. In July 1895 Hattie Strage was arrested by Chicago police for disorderly conduct when she was encountered riding down Dearborn Street in a costume of black tights and a flesh-coloured sweater. “When arraigned before Justice Wallace the offending garments were laid on his honor’s desk and he promptly imposed a fine of $25.” If bloomers and tights were beyond the pale, actual male attire was even more so. In 1898 Maggie White of New York was arrested and held overnight at the West Fifty-Fourth Street Police Court after Bicycle Policeman Conneally had spotted her cycling on the Boulevard dressed in trousers, a stiff shirt, cutaway coat, and with her hair tucked away under a man’s hat. Luckily for Miss White the magistrate thought that a night in the cells had been sufficient punishment and she was discharged.
Men also organized themselves in opposition to bloomers, typified by the formation of a club in Edmeston, Connecticut, whose members pledged “to refrain from associating with all young ladies who adopt the bloomer cycling costume” and to “the use of all honourable means to render such costumes unpopular in the community where I reside.” In Birmingham, Alabama, a group of young men reacted in a particularly vile manner to discourage bloomers when they hired “the biggest, fattest, most ungainly negress they could find” and set her to riding through the streets dressed in bright blue bloomers, yellow stockings, and a red sweater. Sadly this appeal to the prejudices of the time was successful as white female cyclists replaced their bloomers with skirts when they next appeared on the streets of Birmingham.
While objectionable to modern audiences this last points to the key issue that lay at the heart of women’s cycling apparel. While cycling required clothing that would conform to the material demands of the bicycle, women required clothing that would not earn them censure for its dissimilarity to existing women’s dress. The introduction of the drop-frame safety bicycle in the late 1880’s offered many women an opportunity to enjoy cycling without resorting to bloomers, knickerbockers, or any other dreaded bifurcated garment. Whilst such bicycles made riding in skirts possible, contemporary fashions continued to favour women’s clothing that was ill suited to the activity. While the dress reform societies and their supporters argued passionately in favour of bloomers many thousands of other women wanted cycling clothing that met the functional needs of riding a bicycle whilst retaining a style that fulfilled contemporary notions of style and femininity.
Through newspapers, magazines, club newsletters, and pattern circulars women carried out a debate on cycling dress in which they sought clothing that signalled functionality, femininity, and respectability. In an age when off-the-peg clothing was the exception rather the norm many women were competent seamstresses and dressmakers. Women cyclists began to design their own clothes, sharing these with friends and, through the pages of magazines, with a wider audience. Mail-order pattern producers, such as the Delineator, provided a range of patterns for cycling clothing, including bloomers, knickerbockers, and skirts, divided or otherwise. Manufacturers of bicycles also contributed to the discussion. After all, they had a vested interest in promoting women’s cycling as it potentially doubled the market they could sell to. In 1895 the Pope Manufacturing Company, makers of the popular Columbia brand of bicycles, issued a set of six paper dolls that were included in the Delineator. Each doll portrayed a cycling costume designed by leading dress reformers. Pope was also live to the issue in its own advertising, with its first advertisement featuring women in bloomers appearing in 1894, and advertising of the time featured women in all manner of styles of dress presumably deemed suitable for cycling. Where the defenders of traditional dress and the more passionate advocators of dress reform dictated their preferred mode of dress as the right one, the reality was that women were free to choose from a variety of dress styles according to their individual preferences and notions of respectability and femininity.
As Miss F. J. Erskine, author of Lady Cycling: What to Wear & How to Ride, reminded her readers environment dictated what was suitable to wear. The requirements for cycling in the town and the country were different. While artistically cut skirts and puff-sleeve blouses might be advisable on a dry Summer day in Battersea Park, such attire did not meet the needs of a long touring ride through the countryside. Knickerbockers, she argued, were essential in cycling. Skirts should be turned up a good six or eight inches and a woollen-cased corset would “keep the figure from going all abroad.” Most importantly “Wool above, wool below, wool all over” was the “hygienic rule for cycling.” Her American contemporary, Maria E. Ward, reminded her readers in Bicycling for Ladies, that “All seasons of the year permit of cycling; the bicyclist therefore has opportunity for much variety in dress.” Like Erskine she advocated knickerbockers; skirts were optional according to individual preference. Both were more concerned with the functionality and fit of the clothing rather than the outward appearance.
By 1900 varying kinds of rational women’s cycling costume were becoming more commonplace, if by no means universally accepted. While the St Petersburg police had legislated for compulsory bloomer wearing in 1899 when they banned cyclists in skirts on the grounds that they were a menace to the wearer and the public, in the rest of Europe and North America it was the skirt that remained the dominant form of dress adopted by women cyclists at the turn of the century. For the better off middle and upper class women who could afford several outfits, social expectations and rules of dress applicable to the context they found themselves in remained in force. Such women were able to dress for the occasion and the cycling outfit was just one mode of dress they employed. Attitudes to rational dress in 1900 were reflected by Dr Turner of the Cyclists’ Touring Club who while recognizing that it was “safer in that there is no skirt flapping about to get wound up in the machine” thought that rational dress would never be popular in Britain as “the looking-glass would absolutely forbid its adoption by the great majority of riders.”
Attitudes to the dress of women cyclists were slow to change however, and it was the First World War, rather than changing social mores that perhaps had the biggest impact on women’s clothing. The creation of the Woman’s Land Army in 1917 put a quarter of a million women into farming work in Britain. For practical reasons many of the Land Girls, as they were dubbed, adopted male modes of dress helping to establish trousers as an acceptable garment for women in specific circumstances.
Approval was not universal. As late as 1934 Mr H. L. Kenward, Sales Director of the Dunlop Rubber Company, speaking at a luncheon of the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) in London expressed his opinion that “an admirable costume for women cyclists would be one on the lines of that worn by Miss Dorothy Round at Wimbledon.” “Man,” Kenward opined, “has developed a skill in wearing trousers which woman has so far evaded … if a cyclist looks like a freak then he is treated by other users of the road as one.”
Kenward’s views were perhaps not representative of the majority by 1934 but they demonstrate that negative attitudes towards women cyclists and their mode of dress persisted long after the outrage at the scandal of the nineteenth century rational dress movement had quietened down. And it should be remembered that Kenward’s views were shared by women, as a letter from Molly Hunt, organizer of a rally of the West Kent Association CTC, to the Sussex Agricultural Express in June 1934 attests. Not only were shorts unbecoming on most feminine figures they also caused offence to otherwise well disposed people. Flannel trousers were dismissed as hideous, with Hunt expressing her pleasure that they were only adopted by a minority. Instead of either of these undesirable garments Hunt recommended that women cyclists should wear the newly introduced divided skirt over shorts.  Ironically this was effectively the same solution proposed by one Florence Wallace Pomeroy, Lady Harberton, when she had founded the Rational Dress Society in 1881.
The Second World War again saw women enter into spheres of employment that were traditionally regarded as male. The post-war decades saw significant changes in attitudes to women’s dress in all spheres of public life. Hemlines have risen, fallen, and risen and fallen again as fashions have changed and attitudes towards women, in much of the world at least, are very different than they were in Nineteenth century Europe and North America. Today’s female cyclist has a range of cycling appropriate clothing to choose from, whether designed for competitive sport, long-distance riding, or simply getting quickly from A to B as part of the daily routine. We should not exaggerate the impact of cycling on women’s dress, however. Though contemporary commentators focused on the debate over rational dress, the majority of women cyclists in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries chose to wear clothing that resembled fashionable dress, tweaked here and there for greater comfort and functionality. Rather than revolutionizing women’s clothing cycling should be set against a wider background of societal change, one element in the growing emancipation of women and their wider participation in many sports, each of which required functional modes of dress that differed from the norms of contemporary day-to-day fashionable clothing.
 “Mrs. Burrows and her bicycle,” Sporting Life, October 14, 1893.
 Women’s Rescue League Resolutions, June 29, 1896. http://forgottenstories.net/2012/11/26/a-public-service-announcement-from-1896/
 Punch 100, February 1, 1896, 59.
 Joseph S. Bishop, “Social and Economic Influence of the Bicycle,” Forum 21 (August 1896): 683.
 “The philosophy of fashions,” The Star of the North, Bloomsburg, PA, January 3, 1856
 “A bloomer,” Yorkville Enquirer, Yorkville SC, August 9, 1860
 Christine Neejer, “Cycling and Women’s Rights in the Suffragette Press,” Master’s Thesis, University of Louisville, Louisville KY, May 2011, 57.
 London Standard, May 27, 1881, 5.
 W. H. Fenton, “A Medical View of Cycling for Ladies,” Nineteenth Century 39 (May 1896): 800.
 Sue Macy, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tyres Along the Way (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2011), 43.
 Women’s Rescue League Resolutions, June 29, 1896. http://forgottenstories.net/2012/11/26/a-public-service-announcement-from-1896/
 “Women Cyclists,” Cheltenham Looker-On, February 11, 1896, 35-36.
 “Bicycling Costumes,” Harper’s Bazaar, March 14, 1896, 29.
 Mrs Reginald de Koven, “Bicycling for Women,” The Cosmopolitan (August 1895). http://www.digitalhistoryproject.com/2012/03/bicycling-for-women-in-1890s-bloomer.html
 “The Pneu-Matic Woman,” Freeland Tribune, Freeland, PA, September 2, 1895.
 “Making war on bloomers,” San Francisco Call, San Francisco, CA, August 31, 1987.
 “Inspired by the devil,” The Madisonian, Virginia City, MT, October 12, 1895.
 “Against the craze,” Arizona Republican, Phoenix, AZ, June 22, 1895.
 “Women cyclists refused hospitality,” Aberdeen Evening Express, June 8, 1894.
 “Hotels and “rational costume”,” The Standard, April 6, 1899.
 “No bloomers there,” Brooklyn Eagle, Brooklyn, NY, March 25, 1895.
 The Evening Times, July 19, 1895.
 “Girl bicyclist in trouble,” New York Times, July 02, 1898.
 “New woman’s garb,” The Sun, New York, September 1, 1895.
 F. J. Erskine, Lady Cycling: What to Wear & How to Ride (London: British Library, 2014), 8-15. First published 1897 by Walter Scott Ltd
 Maria E. Ward, Bicycling for Ladies: The Common Sense of Bicycling (New York: Brentano’s, 1896), 93.
 “Compulsory bloomers,” Gloucestershire Echo, May 9, 1899.
 “Dress and drink for cyclists,” Lancashire Evening Post, August 4, 1900.
 “Women cyclists: Mere man suggest an “admirable” costume,” Western Morning News, July 11, 1934, 7.
 Molly Hunt, “Women cyclists’ dress, letter to the editor,” Sussex Agricultural Express, June 22, 1934, 10.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
Quality Reading from Chicago
Art by Maxine Dodd
My words, visions & trivia along the way
One life, some bicycles. A million possibilities, zero clue!
When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race. ~H.G. Wells
the man who goes alone can start today ...
A blog full of humorous and poignant observations.
Exploring Time Travel of Place
A history blog on the joys and perils of cycling in Victorian Britain
Celebrating the bit players of history
- a little look at the history of Rhyl
Food Photography & Recipes