Bike Week – Historic Bicycle Fashion

Women on bicycles, 1898 from Victoria and Albert Museum

Today, Bike Week continues with a look at historic bicycle fashion. But first, I want to welcome any new readers who have come over from The Vintage Traveler. Hello!

I met Lizzie, who blogs at The Vintage Traveler, in Atlanta at the Costume Society of America symposium. I’m guest blogging on her site today, and Lizzie will be appearing here next Monday. I’m sharing what it’s like to be a historic costume collection manager on The Vintage Traveler. Please check it out.

And now, back to Bike Week!

Bicycling was a growing trend in the 1890s. According to the Survey of Historic Costume, by 1896, 10 million Americans were cycling.

The craze for bicycles was part of an upswing in women’s activity in sports, along with tennis, golf, crew, baseball, and basketball. But for the most part, women’s sports made due with few alterations to women’s clothing.

Bicycles presented more challenges to Victorian women’s wardrobes. At this time a woman wore many layers — a pair of drawers, a chemise or combination directly next to the body, then a corset, a camisole on top, and one or two petticoats. That was just the undergarments!

Then there was a dress or bodice/shirtwaist and skirt. The silhouette of women’s clothing in the 1890s was hourglass shaped.

With long, bell-shaped skirts, riding a bike was not the easiest feat. To accommodate straddling a bike, some changes needed to be made. And so the bicycle suit was born.

According to Cynthia Cooper in The Fashion Reader, the avant-garde bicycle suit was “based on the tailor-made suit, these cycling outfits had fitted jackets and the first accepted form of trousers for women, which covered the knee. A skirt may nonetheless have hidden these trousers.”

Jacket and Bloomers, c. 1895 from Kyoto Costume Institute, photo by Takashi Hatakeyama

Many women’s bloomers were so full that they passed as skirts when a lady wasn’t riding. In the example above from the Kyoto Costume Institute, the bloomers have so much volume that a passerby might not notice at a glance that they are actually not a skirt.

Not all women wore bicycle trousers. Most women made do with jackets or shirtwaists, a type of fitted blouse with varying degree of lace and ruffles, and simple skirts. Some skirts were a bit shorter than a typical daytime skirt to accommodate swinging the leg over the bike’s frame. Others were bifurcated in the rear as to allow more range of motion and prevent the skirt from getting caught in the chain or spokes of the rear tire.

Below is an example of a bifurcated skirt from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Note that from the front it looks like a regular skirt, but from behind the division into separate pant legs is evident.

Suit, Cycling, 1896 from Metropolitan Museum of Art

In both the images above, women pose for photographers in studio settings. These photographs allow us to note the detail of the rear wheel. You can see that these women have not chosen to modify their dress. Instead they have wheel cages to prevent their skirts from getting caught in the spokes.

Biking continued to gain popularity, giving women more freedom to travel short distances without the accompaniment of a man and normalizing less restrictive dress practices. About 30 years separate the image above with the image below, but the fashions have changed considerably. It may not seem radical to us now, but in a short period of time, the bicycle helped usher pants into the modern woman’s wardrobe.

Comments

  1. Trisha says:

    Horray for bicycles! I love them a little more now for helping to hurry pants into women’s wardrobe.

  2. Erin says:

    Wow, this is really cool! I especially love Nancy Carroll’s outfit — I would wear that today!

  3. Terri says:

    Yeah for bicycles leading the way to pants!

  4. Vado Porro says:

    Fascinating! I bike to work regularly, and I usually do it in a suit, but sometimes I wear a knee length skirt or dress. I love the bifurcated skirt. It’s a little similar to goucho pants for my taste, and sadly, those are not court appropriate. However, I wonder why wheel cages have gone out of fashion – I would love to not need to worry about my pants or skirt getting caught in the chain.

  5. Lizzie says:

    Great images!

    The Atlanta History Center has a fantastic Victorian bicycling suit, but it was not on display while we were there. I saw it a few years ago.

  6. Monica says:

    Well done, Jacqueline! I am interested in creating a sport outfit based on skirt pants to ride my mountain-bike, any suggestion of sources to document this project? Many thanks – Monica

    • jacqueline says:

      Are you asking for sources of research or online platforms to share a project?

      I think you could document it through things like a blog if you plan to write and show pictures or Flickr if your documentation will just be image based.

      If you are looking for research sources, look at museum websites that have their costume collections online — the Met, FIT Museum, LACMA, the American Textile History Museum, etc. (those are my most frequently used sources). You could also contact a local museum to see if they have any activewear in their collection that you could examine in person to see the construction details.

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