The proper mode of dress for women who enjoyed cycling was a question that vexed society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. While the more radical woman embraced the bifurcated garment by adopting bloomers or knickerbockers as practical attire, many women and, it must be said, even more men, desired clothing that more readily met contemporary notions of appropriate attire. While the physical demands of cycling required functional and less restrictive clothing, feminine modesty was everything, and one such attempt to marry the two came in 1895 from Ida M. Rew, a resident of New York, with her 1895 patent for an “Athletic Suit For Ladies”. In her own words, the object of her invention was, “to provide a safe, reliable, and easy lady’s suit, graceful in outline, hygienic in construction, light in weight, and of handsome and modest appearance”.
Hew’s design sought to combine the practicality of trousers with the modesty of the skirt, throwing in an integral bodice for good measure, presumably, as Miss F. J. Erskine was to put it two years later in her book Lady Cycling: What to Wear & How to Ride, to “keep the figure from going all abroad.” The trousers were to be attached to the bodice and thus supported by the shoulder straps rather than hanging from the waist. Strips of material loosely attached the trousers to the skirt, preventing the latter from being blown up to reveal the wearer’s legs, and perhaps more importantly stopping the skirt from, “either blowing up or swinging back sufficiently far to catch between the wheel and the rear fork of the bicycle, (a common tendency in the loose skirt,)”, which, as Rew pointed out, could not only “soil or tear the garment, but too often is the cause of accidents.” A dressmaker by trade, Rew secured several other patents mostly for undergarments. Her description for US Patent 505003 highlights the constraints of contemporary women’s clothing that the athletic suit sought to resolve, when she wrote:
“My invention relates to a bust supporter for ladies use with the lower edge encircling the person just below the bust line, made without stiffness and which does not exert any pressure upon the lower chest, permits deep or diaphragmatic breathing, prevents attenuation of the lung tissue, collapse of the chest walls and in consequence hollow chestedness and round shoulders. An ordinary corset or stiffly boned waist exerts a great pressure upon the lower chest and over the sensitive region of the stomach, to relieve which that portion of the person is drawn inward causing the shoulders of the wearer to incline forward, entailing great distress and permanent injury, which my invention, obviously, very effectually prevents.”
Compared to some of the patents featured here previously, Rew’s athletic suit appears eminently sensible. Modesty could be maintained, albeit if revealing a daring display of booted or gaitered ankle and calf, and safety concerns were addressed by reducing the risk of entanglement with the works of the machine. Her design neatly balanced the freedom of movement necessary for physical activity with the sense of propriety demanded of middle-class women.
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