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.