“A woman on a bicycle – legs astride – threatened 19th-century definitions of feminine respectability.” History Curator Claire Regnault dives into the contentious history of ladies on bicycles.
Frocks on Bikes
I have recently become a born-again cyclist, following a 10-year hiatus. While I envisioned myself becoming part of the Frocks on Bikes movement – elegantly cycling along in a dress and heels without a care – I have found myself struggling to combine safety and style, and have become all the more in awe of the women who took up cycling with gusto in the 1890s in their long skirts, petticoats, corsets, and oh-so-jaunty hats.
While cycling and cyclists are still hitting the headlines, whether it’s MAMALs (Middle Ages Men in Lycra) being banned from cafés because of their bulge revealing shorts, helmets or the introduction of cycle lanes, the mere sight of a woman on a bicycle could cause an uproar in the late 1800s. A woman on a bicycle – legs astride – threatened 19th-century definitions of feminine respectability.
Ladies on bicycles
As etiquette manuals of the day emphasised, respectable women were ‘unobtrusive’. They didn’t talk loudly or laugh boisterously, or draw negative attention to themselves. Riding a bicycle in the 1890s, on the other hand, was an attention grabbing act. As a writer for the New Zealand Cyclist magazine wrote in August, 1897:
No matter how insignificant a woman may be, nor how inconspicuous her garb, nor how desirous she is to escape notice, she is sure to attract attention on her bicycle… cycling seems to make her open to comment of the most open sort. The entire army of pedestrians, cabmen and small boys feel privileged to stare at her and pass remarks. Non-cycling women regard her with mingled amazement and amusement.(1)
Or as Australian historian Kylie Winkworth has more explicitly written:
The whole focus of the bicycle is legs going up and down or round… For a society fixated on denying that women had two legs, the conjunction of women and the bicycle was bound to be problematic.(2)
In order for women to maintain and enjoy the many new found freedoms afforded by cycling – being able to escape the ‘paternal eye’, traverse distances apace, and experience the rush of being physically active – women had to adopt a range of protective strategies, including ensuring that their legs were never too distracting.
Paying careful attention to their clothing and overall appearance was one such strategy. What to wear while cycling was one of the most discussed issues of the time, with strong opinions being shared by cyclists and non-cyclists alike, both male and female. Concerns revolved around women’s safety and their respectability, although female respectability trumped safety.
The Atalanta Ladies Cycling Club knickerbocker scandal
In Christchurch, the hub of New Zealand’s suffrage movement, a group of eight enthusiastic female cyclists formed the Atalanta Cycling Club in 1892 – the first all-women’s cycling club in Australasia. The founding members included a number of active social reformers, including our suffrage heroine, Kate Sheppard and dress reform advocate, Alice Burn.
In the above photograph, the committee members sport the most popularly recommended cycling attire of the day – a skirt, blouse and necktie (theirs were in in the club colours of gold and navy), topped off with a neat little hat. As one journalist wrote after observing the Atalanta club members in a procession, ‘altogether the lady cyclists make a very favourable impression’.(3)
However, this was not always the case. When some members of the club, including the club’s captain Blanche Lough, set off on a cycling excursion wearing knickerbockers, a practical garment promoted by dress reformers, the women had both verbal abuse and stones hurled at them. On the one hand, knickerbockers were seen as far too masculine and on the other, far too similar to women’s underwear. Like MAMALs, women wearing items of rational dress were frequently banned from pubs and hotels.
The Atalanta Club’s association with knickerbockers placed them in the radical camp – something which in such politically sensitive times – the lobby for the vote – they could not afford.
The members of the Atalanta club beat a hasty wardrobe retreat. In September 1893, just a couple of weeks before women were granted the vote, the Christchurch Star assured readers that:
As the Club has suffered no small degree from the report that all the members were in favour of the dress reform movement it was unanimously agreed that none of the members should be allowed to appear in that costume.(4)
Otago’s Mimiro Cycling Club followed suit, although it allowed members to wear whatever they wanted when not riding with the club. The New Zealand public may have been willing to grant women the right to vote, but the right to wear trousers in public in 1893 was still very much a man’s, in the minds of both men and women. ‘Porowhita’, who wrote a cycling column for the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s magazine White Ribbon declared:
Women cannot afford to sacrifice everything to so-called comfort, and I think all right thinking people will allow that the skirt adds much to women’s dignity, also that the ladies always look more graceful on their machines than the gentlemen do. Take away the skirt you certainly take away this grace.(5)
As such, the majority of lady cyclists continued to run the risk of wearing skirts and getting them caught in their wheels, chains and pedals, leading to tumbles, ‘bad smashes’, and even fatalities.
Solutions to cycling in a skirt
The market, in for a penny in for a pound, naturally responded to the problem of cycling in skirts, with a range of solutions.
The development of the women’s safety bicycle with the drop or step through frame which provided space for rider’s skirts, was followed by the invention of dress guards and skirt clips.
Meanwhile, tailors, dressmakers, and cyclists worldwide experimented with various designs for draw-string operated safety skirts, weighted hems, skirt and bloomer combinations, and divided skirts which looked like normal skirts on dismounting.
Other women just did what they could, including tying their skirts to their shoes to prevent them from flying upwards.
A larger world to move and think in
‘Theta’, however, a cyclist who wrote for the New Zealand Wheelman journal, was hopeful that in the light of woman’s suffrage, attitudes to women’s dress would naturally change for the better:
As the dainty wheel gives her a larger world to live and move in, so the wheel of progress has now given her a larger world to think in…
Every day now cools the ire of the anti-suffrage. This means that every day now sees fewer people who consider the cycliste a disgrace to her sex; and every day now fewer people who object to a woman dressing herself in the way she thinks best for work and exercise.(6)
Sadly, it was to take longer than she hoped.
What I want for Suffrage 125: Cycliste clothing, accessories, and ephemera
As you may have noticed, none of the images in this blog post are drawn from Te Papa’s collections. This is because we do not hold any material culture relating to this exciting period of women’s cycling history.
Maybe you can help remedy this situation?
Was your great grandmother a cycliste or perhaps even a speed loving cyclodonna (racer) or scorcher (lover of speed)? Do you have any heirlooms or memorabilia from the 1890s cycling boom tucked away at home? Say a ladies drop frame bicycle, a cycling outfit or even a touring guide? Perhaps you have some skirt holders or an enamelled ladies cycling club badge?
If so, I’d love to hear from you – please leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
- New Zealand Cyclist, 21 August 1897, p. 5
- Kylie Winkworth, ‘Women and the Bicycle: fast, loose and liberated’, Australian Journal of Art, 8:1, 1989, p. 100.
- ‘Cycling’, Star, 10 October 1892
- ‘Cycling’, Star, 7 September 1893
- ‘Porowhita’ cited in White Ribbon 1893a, p. 4.
- New Zealand Wheelman, 14 October 1893, 4.
Clare Simpson, A social history of women and cycling in late-nineteenth century New Zealand, Doctoral Thesis, Lincoln University, 1998.
Ride – the story of cycling in New Zealand, Kennett Brothers, 2004.