This post was contributed by April Streeter.
By the midpoint of the last decade of the 19th century the ‘safety’ bicycle had brought both men and women to the wheel (as it was called) in huge numbers.
Sunday wheeling was a delight that most could enjoy – special trains took pleasure-seekers from the cities further into the country where riding the lanes (with no real car traffic, just occasional horse carts) was fun and wholesome. Added benefit – it got many a couple together as biking was one activity old-lady chaperones rarely participated in.
Too bad – the fresh air was a needed tonic to all city dwellers.
But…what to wear?
That was definitely the question, and easier for men to answer than for women. While quite a few boys and men on bikes were already members of a club (which dictated a practical and generally tweedy uniform) women were still constricted by society and too many pounds of underwear.
What a wheeling woman could do was keep it simple – dark clothing, nothing too daring (at first) with simple tailoring and a hat – perhaps a feather for that jaunty feeling? Lace-up boots or perhaps English walking shoes were the footwear. Many women still wore their corsets, especially at mid-century. It simply felt too scandalous not to, and doctors were still deciding whether they felt the bicycle craze was overall good or might lead to (horrors!) something they called bicycle face. As the decade of the 90s progressed past its midpoint the corset got mercifully dropped for many, and tweed made its appearance. You can see (Picture #4) Tillie Anderson, the fastest female racing cyclist of her era, dressed in a fine tweed suit, no obvious corset, and a skirt short enough to be practical for the fast frame and no-skirt-guard racing bike she was riding. Nearing the end of the decade (Picture #5), bloomer pants became more common, but not universal.
And menswear was always a good choice – a starched white shirt with a black tie never went out of style. Mutton sleeves also made it through most of the decade.
But tweed indeed was the popular and most enduring textile for a biking ensemble. And though there were fabulously tailored suits (Picture #6), women also made do with what they had in the closet. As long as a hat covered their head, decency had gotten its nod (Picture #7). (That cigarette was not acceptable, however.)
To hear more about Tillie Anderson’s effect on women’s bike racing and her fabulous record, this week’s Bicycle Story: http://www.thebicyclestory.com/