Saturday 3 January 2015

Bikes, Bars, and Bloomers, by Y S Lee

Living in southeastern Ontario, I count on having white Christmases. To everyone’s surprise and disappointment, this year’s was warm and browny-green, so my family and I made the best of it by riding our bikes often along a waterfront path that follows the curve of Lake Ontario. I seldom spare much thought for my riding gear (apart from wearing a helmet) but in the past week, I’ve been consumed with appreciation for the women of the Rational Dress Society.

In her Bicycle Book, Bella Bathurst quotes early American feminist Susan B. Anthony as saying, in 1896, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world”. As Bathurst notes, “It was a surprising claim.”

The earliest bicycles were called velocipedes. They were mass-produced from 1857, but it took a hardy and determined cyclist to appreciate the ride they offered: velocipedes were built of wood, with the later addition of metal tires. When pedalled over patchily paved roads, it’s no wonder they became known as “boneshakers”. The velocipede evolved into the penny-farthing bicycle of the 1870s, with its enormous front wheel. Gears had yet to be invented, so the big wheel enabled the cyclist to ride quickly while pedalling at a reasonable rate. It also improved the ride quality. 

Two men on pennyfarthings, California, 1866. Image via wikipedia
 However, women of the 1870s were still trapped in highly structured skirts with bustles – possibly an improvement over the huge crinoline of the 1860s, but still terribly cumbersome and constricting.

Detail from "Too Early", by Tissot. Image via wikipedia.
It’s impossible to think of athletic activity in such clothing, or even what we now consider a normal range of motion. Contrast the lines of Tissot's gowns (above) with this recent instructional video, which shows how tricky it is to mount and dismount a pennyfarthing.

Some women of means briefly considered the tricycle. According to Bathurst, “While out in her carriage one day at Osborne, Queen Victoria spotted a lady on a trike at a distance. Intrigued, she ordered her driver to speed up. The trike rider looked round, realised who her pursuer was, panicked and took off. Sadly, the Queen did not succumb to the temptation to give chase. Instead, she asked to meet the trike’s inventor, James Starley… [and] was pleased enough with the trike to order two. Even so, trike fever never really caught on. Not because there was anything inherently wrong with them, but because the bicycle was better.” It was only with the invention of the safety bicycle in the late 1880s that women began to embrace the machine.

A tandem tricycle, 1882. Image via the Women's History Network.
With the safety bicycle came an immediate and predictable public uproar at the spectre of ladies sitting astride a bike, revealing the existence of legs and possibly damaging the “feminine organs of matrimonial necessity” (quoted in Bathurst)! And there was the very real problem of riding whilst wearing a corset and some 20 pounds’ worth of clothing. It was at this moment that cyclists and clothing reformers found common cause.

"Ladies safety bicycle" from 1889. Image via wikipedia.
Bloomers had been worn – and ridiculed – since their invention in 1851, by the American activist Elizabeth Smith Miller. It required huge confidence to wear bloomers in public: even Amelia Bloomer, who lent her name to the garments, had given up on bloomers by 1859 in favour of undergarment reform. Despite the founding of the Rational Dress Society in 1881, the wearing of bloomers or rational dress (ample trousers overlaid with a shorter skirt) was still considered eccentric and even morally suspect. 

Woman in bloomer costume. Image via National Park Service.
For example, dress reformer and bicycle enthusiast Lady Harberton was refused service in the ladies’ lounge of the Hautboy Hotel in Surrey on the grounds that she was wearing bloomers. She was directed to the bar, where the only other women were prostitutes. When Lady Harberton sued the hotel, the jury found in favour of the landlady.

Despite such setbacks, the bicycle offered just the necessary incentive for the rational dress movement to stick. Bathurst quotes Rose Macaulay's description of the sensation of bicycling as “glorious; the nearest approach to wings permitted to man and woman here below”. Speed, independence, and the sensation of flying? In the long run, the bustle didn’t stand a chance.


Sue Purkiss said...

I think I'd like a tricycle. Certainly not a penny-farthing!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Fabulous post! I had no idea we owed so much to the bicycle! It was my primary means of transport for nearly two decades and even now, you do have to dress differently.

Spade and Dagger said...

I'm in awe of any women who pursued any type of recreational activity in the clothing of the day (lady rock climbers for example), and admire those that helped reform clothing for women.

I think the penny farthing man must be mad to cycle on something with so little control (and so much surprise value) so close to moving cars!

Christina Koning said...

I adored this post. Sean, the Penny Farthing man, was a dream - loved his knickerbockers and moustache! And as a confirmed cyclist myself - I live in Cambridge, where it's practically obligatory to cycle everywhere - I was fascinated by the history of this most eco-friendly and liberating mode of transport. The links between the nascent feminist movement of the 1880s and afterwards and the development of bicycling as a popular form of transport were also very interesting. Did you know that in 1897 the effigy of a suffragette on a bicycle was burned by Cambridge undergraduates protesting at a proposal to grant women students equal status? Thanks again for this great post.

Katherine Langrish said...

I love this post, especially the bit about anxiety around damage to 'the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity' - you'd have thought such anxiety far more likely to apply to 'the masculine (and external) organs of patrimonial necessity' - wouldn't you?

Susan Price said...

Katherine, I was going to ask how many people worried about the masculine organs of matrimonial necessity! Which are far more at risk in every activity. Surely all men should have sat at home quietly?

I'd also like to say that one of my acquaintance, Doug Pinkerton, is a former UK champion pennyfarthing rider.

Sally Zigmond said...

I can well believe the revolution, riding a bicycle brought for women. I remember my late grandmother who was born in the late 1880s reminiscing with joy on the long bike rides with her friends around the villages of Leicestershire at the turn of the 20th century. She had less happy reminiscences of the day she fist wore a corset when she was 18 and sobbed with the agony and lack of freedom it brought. She was so pleased when the 1920s finally arrived!

Leslie Wilson said...

Great post. How terrifying to be atop a penny-farthing! And we don't perhaps appreciate our modern-day liberty enough, though there still aren't comfortable and smart shoes for women..
However, working women did wear more pragmatic clothes - though I seem to remember reading about women working semi-nude in the underground heat of coal mines, which was a pretty dubious form of sartorial emancipation?