Women and Bicycles

Fashion for the Active Woman, 1894 Style

Women Cyclists, from an 1894 magazine
Women Cyclists, from an 1894 magazine. Rischgitz / Getty Images

Today's fashionable "lady cyclist" is likely wearing spandex, skin-tight bicycle shorts. Consider the women of 1894 and their persistence in finding some way to enjoy that new contraption, the bicycle.

"What shall we wear?" is a query rising from every channel of woman's life: for upon each occasion we must be suitably clad to enjoy its peculiar benefits. This is especially noticeable for such exercise as bicycling, for, in this case, it is not only a matter of appearing well, but the health, the comfort and safety demand a carefully selected costume and equipment.

From The Ladies Standard Magazine, April 1894, p. 98.

In 1878, the first bicycles were manufactured in America. Very quickly, women began to experiment with riding the new personal vehicles. And just as quickly, some fashion and medical experts found that bicycle riding was a bad idea for women.

With the voluminous, ankle-covering skirts that were fashionable, it was probably not safe for women to ride bicycles. And if they dared to use the "bloomer" costume to add some modesty to their experimenting, certainly (so the "experts" said) it was not healthy for delicate, fragile womankind to trust herself to a mechanical device.

(And, perhaps, there were those who thought that the independence that a bicycle might bring to a woman was also not such a great idea.)

By 1894, however, women were riding bicycles, and fashion adapted. Pattern magazines were full of "bicycle costumes" to preserve modesty and to preserve health.

In an article from The Ladies' Standard Magazine, April 1894, one recommendation was: a full wool costume covering the body, even on the hottest summer day!

 The full title of the article: "The Bicycle and Health: What Physicians and Riders Say in Its Favor."

The article was also careful to point out that criticisms of health risks of women riding bicycles were inaccurate.

"The head doctor of the New York Hospital on Fifteenth street states that no case has ever come under his notice where any organic weakness or derangement could be traced to bicycling."

The article begins by acknowledging the criticisms of this and other activities for women, and then debunking them.

The greatest obstacle for a sensible woman in this, as in all exercises, is an anxiety for the health. Some one has told her that bicycling and the running of a sewing machine are injurious, and, as she long since decided she could not sew, it seemed sheer madness to expose herself to a companion injury.

Experience alone can effectually explode this theory, yet it must be rational to a sensible thinker to deem the movements unlike when it is explained that on the wheel the action is distributed.

The article goes on to suggest that, while stooping over such a machine might affect posture, it does not have to, and that there might be actual benefits.

For stomach troubles — dyspepsia and the like — this exercise has no peer. Of course there are organic weaknesses which debar women from any exercise, even walking, and in our wide circuit of interviewing physicians the most adverse criticism was almost laughingly given in some such terms as — "Well, you know, there is a saying that if consumptives can stand sea air it will benefit them, and so with this sport, which grows yearly more fascinating for women."

The Bicycle Costume

What would a "suitable" costume look like? The illustration with this article shows an example of a pattern for a bicycling costume, similar to those advertised in that same April 1894 magazine. The particular pattern in that issue was for an adaptable costume, allowing the wearer to buckle the skirt around her legs for complete coverage of those scandalous ankles. Then she could unbuckle the skirt for a more lady-like traditional look when not on the bicycle.

In the article in The Ladies' Standard Magazine accompanying these patterns, Mrs. George D. Johnston is quoted saying:

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. Some friends and I were riding one day last summer against a very heavy wind, when it caught my skirt and wound it around my pedal, throwing me. The rapid gait I was going caused the force of the fall to break my arm. It laid me up six weeks; then it was I decided to wear almost any other costume, but never a skirt, and declared if ever I recovered the use of my arm, I should wear bloomers; and 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 just double. I fear nothing from teams or roads, for if I slip I light on my feet. With my bloomers and heavy undergarments, leggins to my knees, a corset waist, and in cool weather a double-breasted box coat, which amply protects me from chilling, I enjoy my riding.

No skin-tight spandex or even casual shorts - but a fashion revolution, for its time.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women and Bicycles." ThoughtCo, Mar. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/women-and-bicycles-3528526. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, March 7). Women and Bicycles. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/women-and-bicycles-3528526 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women and Bicycles." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/women-and-bicycles-3528526 (accessed November 19, 2017).