Bloomin’ heck! How women pedaled their way toward freedom.

It may not be glaringly obvious from the profile picture I use for this blog, although the feature image I use should give you a clue, but I am an avid cyclist. I cycle the five and half mile journey to university three times a week, and compared to public transport, cycling saves me both time and money. But most importantly, it gives me freedom…freedom to bypass traffic or take dodgy litter-strewn shortcuts, freedom to avoid ‘sardine-like’ conditions on public transport and freedom to wear what I want. However, the freedoms us female cyclists enjoy today are different to those experienced by female cyclists in the Victorian era, and something I can honestly say I hadn’t thought about as I slid into my lycra cycling pants and pedaled off down the road.

 

Women’s cycling has enjoyed a long and varied history, since the first machines ‘propelled by pedalling’ were introduced in 1839. [1] In the 1870s the tricycle, unlike the penny farthing whose design made it virtually impossible for women and their voluminous skirts to ride, was skirt-compatible and provided women with a new and amusing way to travel. It was also given the royal ‘seal of approval’ by Queen Victoria, who cruised around the gardens of Osborne House on her very own ‘Salvo Sociable’ tricycle. However it was the advent of the safety bicycle in the 1880s, with two identical sized wheels, a diamond shaped frame and pneumatic tyres, that was to become the ‘tool of emancipation’ for many middle and upper class Victorian women. [2] Cycling provided these women with a chance to experience independence and physical freedom outside the confines of their homes, and participate in physical activity alongside men on almost equal-terms (we’ll get to that later… )[3] But because this participation was so public, it was open to scrutiny, and unsurprisingly those with conservative views branded it ‘ungainly, fast, indecorous, conspicuous, unsexing and dangerous’, and opposed it on both medical and moral grounds. [4]

bike
Advertisement for a lady’s safety bicycle, The Lady Cyclist, 1896. [5]
Doctors, influenced by earlier theories which claimed that the differing social roles of men and women were determined by their physiological differences, initially put the kibosh on women’s cycling. [6] Women were supposedly uncontrollable primitive beings: perfect for reproduction, but not perfect for intellectual and rational pursuits…a notion pretty much summed up in an 1890 cycle journal, which assumed women were only capable of riding a tricycle rather than the new safety bicycle, ‘Ladies…very sensibly think that what may be a simple matter to the masculine mind is not, as a consequence, equally feasible to his less experienced and less nerveful companion.’ [7] Some doctors even warned that the effort required to maintain balance and avoid accidents would lead to ‘bicycle face’, a condition which caused a permanent grimace on the face of the lady cyclist (remember women’s ability to multi-task won’t be discovered for another seventy years). [8] Cycling was blamed for a plethora of other gynecological complications, such as uterine displacement and contracted birth canals, conditions which endangered the birth rate. [9] And hilariously, it was also claimed that if the bicycle seat was tilted in a certain way, women would get their ‘jollies’ and form a habit! [10] However in the 1890s, with the bicycle craze in full swing and little evidence to uphold these claims, doctors recognised that moderate cycling was beneficial to women’s health, and in turn their ability to bear healthy children. In fact, in 1896 Dr Yorke-Davis gave some advice that sounded more twenty-first century than nineteenth century, when he recommended cycling alongside a non-fattening diet ‘for the reduction of obesity.’ [11]

Moralists, who placed more emphasis on a woman’s ‘actions, missions, qualities of character and home life’ rather than her sensuous nature, viewed the bicycle as a threat to these conventions of womanhood. [12] The bicycle symbolised unfettered freedom for the female sex, and in turn led to ideas regarding women’s sexuality. [13] Many believed that this freedom would destroy ‘the sweet simplicity of the feminine nature’ and lead to a relaxed familiarity between the sexes, or even worse interactions with men from the lower classes…shocking! [14] Some even thought it would lead to prostitution. Cycling also came to be linked with the ‘New Woman’, a term coined by Irish feminist writer Sarah Grand in 1894. [15] The ‘New Woman’ did not resign herself to life in the domestic sphere, rather she ‘grabbed life by the horns’ and engaged in life beyond the home, seeking entry into previously male dominated spaces. [16] Eliza Lynn Linton, contemporary writer and critic of the ‘New Woman’ lambasted the female cyclist for ‘neglecting her home, disobeying her parents, smoking cigarettes and reading improper novels’ and believed she had not ‘the faintest remnant of that sweet spirit of allurement which, conscious or unconscious, is woman’s supreme attraction.’ [17] Of course all these concerns regarding female cyclists were satirically portrayed in contemporary journals such as Punch.

Punch or The London Charivari was a weekly magazine of humour and satire that echoed the conventional views of the middle classes, albeit from a male perspective. [18] Its infamous cartoons offered insight into the political and social issues of the day, which included the bicycling craze of the 1890s. The cycling boom can actually be traced through the pages of Punch, with just a handful of cycling cartoons throughout 1894, to more than fifteen in 1895 and over twenty in 1896, and more often than not, the female cyclist was depicted unfavourably. The following Punch cartoon from 1896 is interesting on many levels…it reveals a conversation that takes place between a mother and her daughter, with reference to the woman who is cycling past them.

lowerclass
Punch, 1896. [19]

Mother, “Wouldn’t yer like ter ‘ave one o’them things, Liza Ann!”
Daughter, “No. I wouldn’t be seen on one. I don’t think they’re nice for Ladies!

Firstly it highlights one of conventional society’s main objections, that cycling was unfeminine. However this objection is made worse by the fact it is being voiced by a female, and one who is younger and more likely open to new experiences. But worst of all, it is being made by someone of a lower class…but how do you know? Check out the phonetically working class way in which the mother has been portrayed, whilst the cyclist is shown to be middle class by the fact she has a bicycle (and time to ride it) and is immaculately dressed. During the cycling boom, the working classes were inhibited from owning a bicycle due to cost (around £30 for a good quality bike), long working hours that often involved manual labour and therefore left little energy for cycling, and an absence of paid holidays. [20]

Between 1895 and 1897 both upper and middle class men and women were struck down with ‘bicyclitis’. As a consequence male-only cycling clubs began admitting women, and women’s cycling organisations blossomed. The boom was also accompanied by an expansion of cycling journals, with some aimed specifically at the female cyclist, such as The Lady Cyclist, plus the inclusion of ‘cycle news’ columns in newspapers, journals and magazines. [21] Even so, the wheelwoman was still frowned upon. Therefore to gain acceptance she was forced to operate within a strict feminine framework that revolved around her participation and her dress.

ladycyclist
The Lady Cyclist, a weekly magazine aimed at the wheelwoman, 1896. [22]
Women’s participation in cycling was viewed as a ‘pastime’, an opinion that was underpinned by men’s fear that women would outdistance them, as pictured in the following Punch print, or beat them in a race. [23] Nevertheless, it was a view that was promulgated by female cycle correspondents like May Dhu and Lillias Davidson, contributors to the ‘Ladies Page’ of The Scottish Cyclist, who ‘agreed that fast or long-distance racing was not worth the strain on the female constitution and was altogether unladylike.’ [24] Female cyclists were also encouraged to look ‘neat, stylish and womanly’ by both male and female commentators. [25] In 1896 when the Bishop of Bath and Wells was asked if women should cycle, he was in favour so long as it, ‘not be in unfeminine dress.’ [26] Also ‘Madame Mode’ in The Lady Cyclist spoke about the scrutiny the lady cyclist was under from men, and the consequences she could suffer if ‘[her] dress does not please them.’ She then tells the readers, ‘I have never heard a coarse or impudent remark made to or of the woman who was neat and modest in her appearance, and whose style was good.’ [27]

perils
THE PERILS OF CYCLING (A sketch in Battersea Park)                  Angelina, “Come Along, Dear!” Punch, 1897. [28]
But as you can imagine, late nineteenth century ladies’ wear was hardly conducive for cycling, and often caused the lady cyclist embarrassment, ‘a lady very neatly dressed…created much amusement by her skirts blowing in every direction but the right one,’ or even death, ‘I allude to the death of Miss Carr…I think she failed because she could not see the pedals, as the flapping skirt hid them from her view.’ [29] Consequently female cyclists adopted the basic walking style dress, which was worn with knickerbockers instead of petticoats, gaiters (these covered the lower legs and upper shoes, helping to keep the legs warm and the shoes dry [30]), a loosely fitting skirt 3 to 6 inches off the ground and 2.5 yards wide. [31] Women also came up with ingenious methods to prevent the skirt from revealing their legs while cycling, including hems weighted with pieces of lead. [32] They could also use other devices, such as skirt holders and skirt guards, to protect themselves. While participation and dress helped, the lady cyclist was eventually accepted thanks to the fact that all the ‘right’ sort of women were cycling. [33] And this information, often with accompanying photos, was regularly promulgated in cycling journals and newspaper columns across the country. In October 1895, Hearth and Home mentioned the following female cycling converts in their ‘Women on Wheels’ column: the Empress of Austria, Lady Randolph Churchill (Winston’s mother), Lady Norreys, Lady Londonderry and the Countess of Warwick. [34] However, one contentious issue still remained……the rational dress costume.

votaries
‘Well-known Votaries of the Wheel,’                   Hearth and Home, 1896. [35]
Rational dress was the name given to an outfit which some women chose to wear in an effort to gain greater freedom of movement whilst cycling. It essentially consisted of a bifurcated garment (which means a garment that is divided into two sections) such as bloomers, a looser corset or no corset and a shorter skirt or no skirt. [36] In 1851 it was famously introduced to the world by American Amelia Bloomer, when she adopted and then described the outfit (which had originally been worn by her friend’s cousin, Elizabeth Smith Miller) in her periodical The Lily. From that day on, the outfit became known as ‘the bloomer costume’, and Amelia herself became the poster girl for the dress reform movement.

amelia
Amelia Bloomer, Originator of the New Dress, Illustrated London News, 1851. [37]
The dress reform movement challenged one of the fundamental structures of society: clothing, which was seen as a key indicator of one’s gender and social position. [38] Men, who were regarded as rational, strong and active beings, wore dark clothing that allowed movement and enabled them to participate in public life. Women, as we know, were regarded as the polar opposites of men: irrational, weak and inactive. Therefore they dressed in decorative, cumbersome, impractical clothing that not only proclaimed their social standing (and their husband’s level of wealth, as only women from the upper and upper-middle classes could afford to dress in the latest fashions from Paris), but ultimately reinforced a woman’s position in the domestic sphere. Can you imagine trying to saunter down the high street wearing an outfit that included up to seven pounds of layered petticoats (BTW seven pounds is the average weight of newborn baby!) along with a floor-length skirt, tightly laced corset, tailored blouse and jacket, hat, gloves and petite shoes? [39] I’m exhausted just thinking about it! But this irrational clothing came at a cost: it compromised women’s health and made it difficult for them to participate in public life. And it was these issues that underpinned the dress reform movement.

Nineteenth century women’s clothing, like cigarette packets today, should have carried health warnings! The tight lacing corset, which was used for purely aesthetic purposes, not only restricted women’s movements, but actually prevented the development and operation of their organs. The ‘weight of a newborn’ petticoats put a strain on women’s stomachs and lower backs, and were responsible for a rise in cases of prolapsed uteri. [40] The floor-length skirts proved unhygienic, as they literally swept the floor collecting all sorts of filth, plus bad weather equalled soaked skirts, stocking and shoes. One reader of The Women’s Penny Paper complained how she had ‘suffered greatly for years from the bearing down and fatigue produced by skirts.’ [41] What’s more, this clothing hindered ‘women’s full participation in society and their freedom to choose their own course in life.’ [42] Regardless, most women accepted illness and their assigned role in the domestic sphere by dressing in this manner. And those who championed dress reform, like Amelia, were perceived to be ‘dangerous radicals’ who were bent on defying God and nature. [43] Ultimately, the furor surrounding dress reform and the press’s ridicule of the ‘bloomer costume’ led to the movement’s decline….until it resurfaced in Britain alongside the bicycle craze.

weather
Mater Familias: Skirts are all very well perhaps, when one’s hands are free to hold them, Rational Dress Gazette, 1899. [44]
In 1898 the Rational Dress League was formed under the premise of ‘fostering and encouraging reform in the dress of both sexes’, and was it accompanied by its very own monthly Gazette that ran from June 1898 – October 1899. [45] The Gazette predominantly focused on encouraging female cyclists to wear ‘rationals’, which was unsurprising considering its president was enthusiastic wheelwoman Lady Florence Harberton. She believed that the issue of rational dress would become less contentious the more women donned the outfit……..not an easy task if public opinion was anything to go by.

Women who adopted rationals had stepped outside of the feminine framework in which female cyclists were operating. Rationals challenged the ‘pastime’ notion, as they reduced the risk of crashes, and thereby allowed women to display their competency and skill, and compete with men on an equal playing field. [46] Rationals also challenged the notion of ‘feminine dress’ as women embraced an outfit which was regarded more masculine than feminine. Mind you, this was made worse as wheelwomen incorporated the latest fashion, which included ‘men’s ties, hats, jackets, waistcoats and shirts,’ into their wardrobe. [47] Some believed that women had abandoned ‘their feminine roles and responsibilities in exchange of masculine behaviours’, and this view was held by both men and women. [48] The female writer of ‘Cycling Modes and Millinery’, a regular feature in Cycling World Illustrated, slated wheelwomen who chose to wear rationals, ‘why should women desire to model their clothes on those of men?’ [49] As did Reverend G.W. Nicholas in one of his sermons, ‘women aped men, that some of them tried to introduce what they had the consummate impertinence to style “rational dress”…sometimes people could not tell which was the man and which was the woman’, a view which was perfectly captured in this Punch print. [50]

vicar
The Vicar of St. Winifred-in-the-Wold (to fair Bicyclists) “It is customary for Men, I will not say Gentlemen, to remove their Hats on entering a Church!” Punch, 1896. [51]
Rational wearing wheelwomen also experienced open hostility from some members of the public, who jeered, hooted and even threw missiles as they cycled past. [52] The poor editor of the Rational Dress Gazette was struck with a meat hook while cycling in Kilburn! [53] In 1895 cycling correspondent for the Clarion, Frederick Leeming, warned rational wearing female cyclists about the dangers of travelling alone to group rides. [54] And as a deterrent, many wheelwomen chose to wear an overskirt that could be whipped off once they were in safe company. [55] The rational dress issue even spilled over to the Lady Cyclists’ Association, when some members refused to ride with those in rational dress. Members voted 4 to 1 in favour of forming a ‘skirted section’, with a separate captain, place and time of meeting….so much for us women sticking together! [56] But it would be wrong of me to insinuate that everyone’s reaction to rationals was negative. Although many were not fans of the rational dress costume, they still believed in women’s freedom of choice, such as Miss Eva Moore, ‘I do not myself think the knicker costume particularly pretty, but I do think people should be able to wear what they please without exciting so much criticism and discussion.’ [57] While others were all for it, such as A.W.M who wrote, ‘a woman can be quite as womanly and quite as charming in rationals as in skirts, often more so,’ in an article titled ‘A Man’s View of Rational Dress.’ [58]

As the Victorian era came to a close, hostility towards rationals had declined, but not disappeared. In a letter printed in the 1899 July issue of the Rational Dress Gazette, this decline was noted by rational wearing wheelwoman Irene Marshall, who had recently taken up cycling after giving it up in 1895. When describing her latest experience of cycling in rationals, she was pleasantly surprised that ‘hardly anyone now notices me,’ and compared it to the verbal and physical abuse she had suffered when she first began in 1894, an experience she called ‘very painful.’ [59] But unlike cycling, which had now become relatively accepted thanks to the continued participation of women, the wearing of rational dress remained ‘unevenly accepted,’ and the skirt continued to be worn by most female cyclists…as you can see in the following video. [60]

Click here to watch ladies from the Catford Cycling Club in 1899. [61]

And so ends our ‘ride’ through the late 19th century female cycling revolution…a revolution which, I think you will agree, helped kick-start the women’s emancipation movement. The bicycle had not only helped smash the traditional image of the frail, helpless female, it had revealed a new one of ‘strength, vigour and self-sufficiency.’ [62] And those wheelwomen who had gone one step further and adopted rationals, had shown that they were not afraid to go against the grain and demanded liberation for their bodies. So next time you slip into your lycra cycling pants and pedal off down the road, ‘tip your bike helmet’ to those brave wheelwomen (and the men who supported them), who chose to free themselves from the constraints of the past, and pedal their way toward freedom.

 

Word Count: 3056

 

REFERENCES

[1] Kathleen E. McCrone, Sport And The Physical Emancipation Of English Women, 1870-1914 (Abingdon and New York, Routledge, 2014), 177.
[2] Ana Stevenson, “Bloomers and the British World: Dress Reform in Transatlantic and Antipodean Print Culture, 1851-1950,” The Journal of the Social History Society 14/5 (2017), 634.
[3] David Rubinstein, “Cycling in the 1890s,” Victorian Studies 21/1 (1977), 68.
[4] McCrone, Sport And The Physical Emancipation, 177
[5] The Lady Cyclist, 27 June, 1896, 170.
[6] Eiliah Macrae, “The Scottish Cyclist and the New Woman: Representations of Female Cyclists in Scotland, 1890-1914,” Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 35/1 (2015), 74.
[7] ‘The Lady’s Cycle,’ The Scottish Cyclist, 19 November, 1890, Vol. III, 1409, cited in Macrae, “The Scottish Cyclist,” 78.
[8] McCrone, Sport And The Physical Emancipation, 179.
[9] Ibid., 180
[10] Ibid.
[11] ‘Should Women Cycle,’ Hearth and Home, 19 March, 1896, 714.
[12] Jennifer Hargreaves, Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sports (London, Routledge, 1994), 93.
[13] Ibid.
[14] McCrone, Sport And The Physical Emancipation, 177.
[15] Macrae, “The Scottish Cyclist,” 73.
[16] Katrina Jungnickel, “One needs to be very brave to stand all that: Cycling, rational dress and the struggle for citizenship in late nineteenth century Britain,” Geoforum 64 (2015), 366.
[17] Rubinstein, “Cycling in the 1890s,” 62.
[18] Illustration Chronicles, ‘How Punch Magazine Changed Everything,’ May 2006. Available at:
http://illustrationchronicles.com/How-Punch-Magazine-Changed-Everything
(Accessed 27 March 2018).
[19] Punch or The London Charivari, 1 February, 1896, 59.
[20] Rubinstein, “Cycling in the 1890s,” 57, 59.
[21] Ibid., 49
[22] Front Cover, The Lady Cyclist, 19 September, 1896.
[23] McCrone, Sport And The Physical Emancipation, 183.
[24] Macrae, “The Scottish Cyclist,” 82.
[25] McCrone, Sport And The Physical Emancipation, 238.
[26] ‘Should Women Cycle?’ Hearth and Home, 19 March, 1896, 714.
[27] Madame Mode, ‘Cycling Fashions,’ The Lady Cyclist, 24 October, 1896, 712.
[28] ‘The Perils of Cycling,’ Punch or The London Charivari, June 26, 1897, 321.
[29] Madame Mode, ‘Cycling Fashions,’ The Lady Cyclist, Part I, Volume II, March 1896, 37; Daily Press, 20 September, 1896, cited in Jungnickel, “One needs to be very brave,” 364.
[30] This Victorian Life. Available at:
http://www.thisvictorianlife.com/everyday-clothes.html
(Accessed 29 March 2018).
[31] McCrone, Sport And The Physical Emancipation, 239.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid., 180
[34] Stella, ‘Women on Wheels,’ Hearth and Home, 17 October, 1895, 814.
[35] ‘Well-known Votaries of the Wheel,’ Hearth and Home, 19 March, 1896, 707.
[36] Jungnickel, “One needs to be very brave,” 362.
[37] The Victorian Web, ‘Amelia Bloomer, Originator of the New Dress,’ Illustrated London News, 27 September, 1851. (Image scanned by Philip V. Allingham). Available at:
http://www.victorianweb.org/art/costume/bloomer.html
(Accessed 21 March 2018).
[38] K.M. Torrens, “All Dressed Up With No Place to Go: Rhetorical Dimensions of the Nineteenth Century Dress Reform Movement,” Women’s Studies in Communication 20/2 (1997), 189.
[39] Jungnickel, “One needs to be very brave,” 364.
[40] Jennifer Ladd Nelson, “Dress Reform and the Bloomer,” Journal of American and Comparative Studies 23/1 (2000), 23.
[41] ‘Correspondence,’ The Women’s Penny Paper, 24 May 1890, 368.
[42] Nelson, “Dress Reform,” 22.
[43] Torrens, “All Dressed Up,” 197.
[44] ‘Mater Familias,’ The Rational Dress Gazette: Organ of the Rational Dress League, Number 5, February 1899, 17.
[45] ‘The Rational Dress League,’ The Rational Dress Gazette: Organ of the Rational Dress League, Number 1, June 1898, 1, 4.
[46] Jungnickel, “One needs to be very brave,” 365.
[47] Ana Stevenson, “Bloomers and the British World: Dress Reform in Transatlantic and Antipodean Print Culture, 1851-1950,” The Journal of the Social History Society 14/5 (2017), 635.
[48] Jungnickel, “One needs to be very brave,” 363.
[49] ‘Cycling Modes and Millinery,’ Cycling World Illustrated, 2 September, 1896, 592.
[50] The Rational Dress Gazette: Organ of the Rational Dress League, Number 7, April 1899, 25.
[51] Punch or The London Charivari, 13 June, 1896, 282.                                                         [52] Rubinstein, “Cycling in the 1890s,” 64.
[53] Ibid., 65
[54] Ibid.
[55] Jungnickel, “One needs to be very brave,” 368.
[56] ‘Amusing Debate,’ Daily Telegraph, 28 November, 1896, 7.
[57] ‘Lady Cyclists at Home: Miss Eva Moore,’ The Lady Cyclist, 24 October, 1896, 716.
[58] ‘A Man’s View of Rational Dress,’ The Rational Dress Gazette: Organ of the Rational Dress League, Number 1, June 1898, 1.
[59] ‘Correspondence,’ The Rational Dress Gazette: Organ of the Rational Dress League, Number 10, July 1899, 40.
[60] Jungnickel, “One needs to be very brave,” 366.
[61] Guy Jones, ‘June 1899 Victorian Time Machine – Ladies Cycling Display in London (18 May 2015). Available at:

(Accessed 13 March 2018).
[62] McCrone, Sport And The Physical Emancipation, 183.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kathleen E. McCrone, Sport And The Physical Emancipation Of English Women, 1870-1914 (Abingdon and New York, Routledge, 2014).

Jennifer Hargreaves, Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sports (London, Routledge, 1994).

Katrina Jungnickel, “One needs to be very brave to stand all that: Cycling, rational dress and the struggle for citizenship in late nineteenth century Britain,” Geoforum 64 (2015), 362-371.

Eiliah Macrae, “The Scottish Cyclist and the New Woman: Representations of Female Cyclists in Scotland, 1890-1914,” Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 35/1 (2015), 70-91.

Jennifer Ladd Nelson, “Dress Reform and the Bloomer,” Journal of American and Comparative Studies 23/1 (2000), 21-25.

Julia Petrov, “A Strong-Minded American Lady: Bloomerism in Texts and Images, 1851,” Fashion Theory 20/4 (2015), 381-413.

David Rubinstein, “Cycling in the 1890s,” Victorian Studies 21/1 (1977), 47-71.

Ana Stevenson, “Bloomers and the British World: Dress Reform in Transatlantic and Antipodean Print Culture, 1851-1950,” The Journal of the Social History Society 14/5 (2017), 621-646.

K. M Torrens, “All Dressed Up With No Place to Go: Rhetorical Dimensions of the Nineteenth Century Dress Reform Movement,” Women’s Studies in Communication 20/2 (1997), 189-210.

ONLINE

Illustration Chronicles, ‘How Punch Magazine Changed Everything,’ May 2006. Available at:
http://illustrationchronicles.com/How-Punch-Magazine-Changed-Everything
(Accessed 27 March 2018).

The Victorian Web, ‘Amelia Bloomer, Originator of the New Dress,’ Illustrated London News, 27 September, 1851. (Image scanned by Philip V. Allingham). Available at:
http://www.victorianweb.org/art/costume/bloomer.html
(Accessed 21 March 2018).

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s