Monday, March 18, 2013

Women's Exercise Clothes and the Bicycle

by Abigail Cucolo
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Don’t you love pants? Jeans, slacks, trousers- so easy, so comfortable, so convenient.

Don’t you love being able to raise your arms? Or sit down?

Did you know women owe a good deal of these “luxuries” to the bicycle?

Well, not the bicycle alone, of course, but it made excellent headway in the evolution of more practical clothing for women. With the increasing number of ladies participating in sports during the end of the Victorian Period and, most especially, the Edwardian, society was familiarizing itself with the idea that women could…well…move--and society wouldn’t fall into moral decay if women wore pants (for our UK readers, trousers. Obviously 'no pants' would be a different issue...).

The typical fashions of the Victorian period were rather restricting: sleeves were so tight women couldn’t raise their arms, large crinolines and bustles made sitting a strategic experience, corsets constricted breathing (among other things). The basic idea was that a lady would not need to be active, should not be active, so her clothing could be as frivolous and tedious as possible. Victorian society valued a domestic, submissive, dainty woman. It also, ironically, valued progress. The period was filled with reform movements on civil rights, temperance, dress, health. Schools began instituting exercise classes where women’s clothing could diverge from the dress code of society with uniforms consisting of knee length divided skirts and cotton stockings, however they would never dare to wear their uniforms outside of the proper venue. Upper middle class women and above began participating in vogue sports like tennis, croquet, ice skating, or golf, but for these social activities they wore their everyday clothes (that’s right, women would play tennis in full bustle). Of course, it didn’t take long to realize you can’t exactly participate if you keep tripping over petticoats or fall out of breath every play, so skirts raised a very few inches, corsets were loosened. While these situations began to blur the boundaries of acceptable costume, they were never worn on the street or out of the confines of private society. In the 1890s, the first women who wore ankle skirts in the cities faced aggressive crowds (Crane 259).

In comes the bicycle. Liberating in oh-so many ways! As a new ‘sport’ not already designated as exclusively male, women could claim it as an appropriate activity for themselves. Because of this, for the first time women were no longer restricted to a radius of three miles around their homes. Of course, it was almost impossible to ride in the fashionable clothing of the period, so it required more practical attire. Shorter skirts, more flexible corsets, less elaborate undergarments and less embellishment- thus began the foot in the door for women’s chance to wear pants.

For cycling, most women wore suits with calf length divided skirts (rationals in England), though bloomers (or knickerbockers) were worn by some. Full pants gathered at the knee, bloomers were originally devised by the dress reformer Amelia Bloomer as an alternative to the cumbersome and physically affecting styles of the mid-Victorian period. Initially both costumes were met with some controversy, but bloomers in particular faced great hostility--many women who wore them were chastised and assaulted on the streets:

Letter from Mrs. C.S. Peel (a Hundred Wonderful Years, 1926):

“Two ladies--or, as Grandpapa says, two shameless females--in bloomers bicycled through the village yesterday, and some of the women were so scandalized that they threw stones at them. I didn’t dare say so, but I thought they looked very neat, though I don’t think I should quite like to show my own legs to the world like that.” ( Gernsheim 81)

More popular in America than in England (where skirts that could be buttoned around each leg were most accepted), they were still often worn with an outer skirt to defer ridicule. Surprisingly, in France, where women were chastised in magazines for dressing in a masculine manner during their athletic activities, the divided skirts and bloomers were rapidly accepted, and a trouser ban on women was lifted for cyclists (Crane 258-260).

By 1896, there was an estimated number of 10 million Americans cycling (Tortura and Eubank 329). The sport only increased in popularity, and during the Edwardian period bloomers caused less controversy as society became accustomed to seeing women’s ankles. While the more traditional woman wore a divided skirt, bloomers were the choice garment of the emancipated lady and marked the first occasion of modestly successful trousers for women. They began to be seen as acceptable for activities other than cycling, like hiking, and though trousers as we recognize them would not be seen in women’s everyday costume until the late 1920s, the bloomers were a leap towards independence (if only for our legs).

So hurray for bicycles! Because the bicycle weaned society onto the sight of more practical clothing for women, we are free to wear our jeans today! …alright, Mr. Levi Strauss may have had a hand in that, too :-)

To view a video of our 'Bicycles to Bloomers' display, visit our Fountainhead Museum YouTube Channel!

Works cited:
Crane, D. (1999). Clothing as non-verbal resistance: marginal women and alternative dress in the 19th century. Fashion theory. May. Vol. 3 No. 2. pp. 241-268.
Gernsheim, A. (1981). Victorian and edwardian fashion: a photographic survey. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Tortora, P. and Eubank, K. (2005). Survey of historic costume: a history of western dress. 4th ed. New York: Fairchild Publications, Inc.


  1. I love bicycles, but more importantly the clothes and the history that you have shared! I'll have to get out on my bike this afternoon and thank society for letting us evolve!

  2. How interesting! And look at how bicycles continue to revolutionize fashion; spandex leggings, skin-tight shirts, fanny packs, and helmets would really rattle those conservative Victorians.

  3. Nice bit of writing on how athletic activity affected women's clothing. As a coach of distance runners, I applaud the athletic woman who wants the good fitting clothes that look good as well. It is the idea that not only will she compete successfully, but she will look better than anyone else out there as well. It might even serve as a piece of the inspiration that drives her on to greatness, I don't know. In any event I support the approach of caring about what you wear as you compete at your best effort.

  4. Good combination of clothes vs bicycles. I have seen this concept at many other portals but the way you defined here is really interesting.
    Women's shopping

  5. Nice take about the historical account of cycling fashion. A very commendable write-up. Regards!

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