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Bicycles, Bloomers and Women's Lib as ladies pedalled to fashionable freedom

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: July 29, 2014

  • Lady Harberton wearing her "respectable" cycling outfits - cartoon from Punch showing contrasting styles

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WE Brits have a long-standing love affair with cycling - whether for fun, or competitively. We're pretty good at it, too! And, judging by the crowds waving on the peloton at this year's English stages of the Tour de France, cycling is more popular than ever.

Today's serious cyclists sport aerodynamically tailored, skin-tight spandex - while leisure cyclists and commuters choose comfy trousers. But, back in the early days of cycling, lady cyclists had a hard time. Women's cycling outfits were hardly geared to speed, let alone safety.

The earliest bicycles, like the Penny Farthing, were terrifying contraptions. With an enormous front wheel, high saddle and no brakes, no wonder ladies often settled for smaller wheeled tricycles. In their typically voluminous skirts, Victorian ladies could just about perch sedately on their trikes, but it was slow going and safety was still an issue.

An article in The Girl's Own Paper of 1880 advised lady trike riders not to wear any trailing garments that could get entangled in the cycle's cog wheels. But what was a girl to do?

For centuries women had been encased in whalebone stays, crinoline cages, bustles and petticoats. Even while playing strenuous sports like tennis they were expected to wear corsets and long skirts. So, by the 1890s, when the new safety bicycle - with identical wheels, blow up tyres and pedals arrived, women began demanding a dress revolution.

The notion of reforming women's dress was nothing new. During the French Revolution it became fashionable to wear loose, flowing gowns in flimsy fabrics. At last women could move much more freely, the more daring even adopting Turkish harem style pants. But it was a short-lived freedom, and soon women were back in long, heavy skirts, corsets and petticoats.

During the mid 19th century the issue of women's dress found an American spokesperson in Amelia Bloomer.

Amelia wrote controversial articles in a feminist publication called The Lily. In one of these she tried to persuade women to abandon their petticoats for a bi-furcated garment that would later be known as the "Bloomer". And, like the ladies of the French Revolution, Amelia also recommended the baggy, Turkish style trousers.

Amelia believed her roomy, ankle length, frilly cuffed bloomers were a far more sensible option - being, in her view, a healthier alternative to long skirts and boned corsetry. However, even in the USA, where girls were considered more forward than their British counterparts, Amelia's bloomers had few devotees.

Those brave souls who did convert to bloomers were in the minority, subjected to ridicule and even booed at in the street. For a few years bloomer fans braved it out, earning notoriety and the nickname of "Bloomers". For most ridicule was too much. And, in 1857, it hardly helped matters when Amelia herself gave up wearing her own creation, choosing the new crinoline.

Apparently, she found the hooped cage more comfortable compared to the weight of multiple petticoats.

Amelia died in 1849 and it was only after her death that bloomers caught women's imagination. The advent of the safety bicycle and Dunlop's pneumatic tyres had made cycling safer and more accessible. So, in 1895, some women cyclists began wearing a version of Amelia's bloomer outfit. The new bloomers were shorter than Amelia's, the cuff falling just below the knee, allowing more movement. Just what lady cyclists needed! By 1897 The Girl's Own Paper was showing bloomer-clad ladies cycling across its front cover. Amelia would have been thrilled.

But Amelia Bloomer wasn't the only campaigner for women's dress reform. In 1881The Rational Dress Society was founded in London by Viscountess Harberton and Mrs King. These redoubtable ladies drew attention to the restrictions imposed on women by corsetry and the forced immobility it caused.

To promote their campaign the society began selling boneless stays and fashions that did not constrict, harm nor deform the female body. They believed that no woman should have to wear underwear weighing more than 7lbs.

These days being weighed down by heavy underwear is unimaginable. But, back then, it was made from bulky, gathered cotton, wool and flannel, depending on the weather. A far cry from the lightweight synthetic and natural fabrics we use today. Those seven pounds sound a lot to us, but in reality it was just half the weight of typical female underwear. Imagine carrying around an extra stone just in undies!

Lady Harberton and her fellow campaigners also devised a new cycling outfit for women. By now cycling was a real craze. So the Viscountess came up with a dual-purpose garment for lady cyclists. Initially, this was a divided skirt, rather like long, wide culottes. Over the top she proposed a long, roomy coat. The idea appealed to many lady cyclists. It allowed more movement - staved off unwelcome attention or ridicule - and kept them warm and dry into the bargain.

Despite these advances, for many lady cyclists it was still a step too far. Those adopting bloomers or split skirts still risked public ridicule, many choosing instead to wear breeches hidden under a long skirt. Gradually, skirts did become shorter, as more women cyclists ditched the petticoats for bloomers. In 1892 Coventry Lady Cyclists became the first women's cycling club. More women were pedalling to freedom, despite criticism in the media. The following year a courageous cyclist called Tessie Reynolds cycled from London to Brighton and back – 176 km, in eight and a half hours. She did it riding a man's bike and wearing rational dress. The press had a field day. In 1899 Lady Harberton caused another stir. On a cycling trip she was denied entry to the Hautboy Hotel tea room because of her rational dress cycling apparel. Instead the manager offered her the more down at heel bar, normally reserved for men. The Viscountess was outraged and sued the hotel owner, showing a photo of herself in respectable cycling attire. The hotel management retaliated, showing the court a photo of its bar in its best light. The judge found in the hotel's favour, as in his opinion, the bar "was quite respectable enough for the client to take a meal."

Despite losing in court Lady Harberton was the real victor, given the extra publicity her campaign received. At last the public seemed ready to debate the issue of women wearing rational dress.

The safety bicycle had a big impact, not only on the move to rational dress for women, but on women's emancipation itself. The new outfits gave women unprecedented mobility, and for many, rational dress symbolised personal freedom. By the end of the 19th century the bicycle came to symbolise the "new woman", who could go anywhere and wear what she liked.

The freedom that cycling gave to women had inspired women to demand greater freedom of movement in their clothes. As one lady cyclist writing in the April 1894 issue of The Ladies Standard Magazine explained: "If I was compelled to go back to wearing a skirt on my wheel, I would give up cycling ... I shall never forget what I suffered with my arm, all the fault of my skirt ... then it was that I decided to wear almost any other costume, but never a skirt, and declared if ever I recover the use of my arm I should wear bloomers."

Accidents were a common danger for Victorian lady cyclists in cumbersome skirts. No wonder our feisty correspondent asserts: "Truly glad I am that I did so decide, for never in the years of my experience as a bicycle rider have I derived such pleasure from cycling. I climb hills, impossible before. It has increased my speed. I fear nothing from teams or roads, for if I slip I light on my feet. With my bloomers ... leggings to my knees ... and in cool weather a double breasted box coat, which amply protects me from chilling, I enjoy my riding."

Thanks to Amelia Bloomer and the ladies of the Rationale Dress Society, women began to find liberation in cycling – paving the way for even greater freedoms.

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