The book and undermining research project is featured in a longer piece about cycle wear, public space and women’s emancipation in The Atlantic. ‘How Cycling Clothing Opened Doors for Women – Advances in biking gear had an impact on advances in gender equality’ by Christone Ro.
“The pivotal period for women’s cycling clothing was the 1890s cycling craze, when the standard modern bike (the “safety bicycle”) became trendy. This period is a focus of Kat Jungnickel, a University of London cycling sociologist and the author of Bikes and Bloomers: Victorian Women Inventors and Their Extraordinary Cycle Wear. The related Bikes and Bloomers project, led by Jungnickel, excavates the cycling garments patented by Victorian women in the 1890s, and reconstructs certain designs. To see the heavy and mechanically inventive Victorian designs on contemporary London cyclists is jarring. In today’s fast-fashion, ready-to-wear, athleisure-loving world, these garments are clearly relics.
As part of the rational dress movement, which sought to make the conventional clothing of the Victorian era more comfortable, cycling helped to highlight the utter impracticality of corsets. Many of the 1890s designs also reappropriated the bloomers of several decades earlier. Innovators were creating new designs for bloomers and combining breeches with skirts in various ways.
And they were often obscuring bloomers altogether. Convertible cycling garments frequently involved hardware such as weighted pulleys, hooks, and elaborate straps. Because cycling trousers were so contested in the United Kingdom and the United States, one way for women to limit harassment was to combine the feminine appearance of skirts with the practicality of pants. Ida M. Rew’s “athletic suit for ladies,” patented in 1895, hid trousers under a full skirt and attached them to a bodice.
But some activists, including members of ladies’ bicycling associations, disparaged these convertible designs precisely for their ability to hide in plain sight. It was argued that increasingly mobile women—whose lifestyles increasingly demanded practical clothing—needed to be publicly visible. Obvious sports attire also helped to make the general public more comfortable with the idea of women in pants. As the Bury and Norwich Post and Suffolk Herald reported on December 2, 1890, “Public opinion seems to be very indulgent to innovations that have a real raison d’être and are not the outcome of any particular theory.” Women in cycling trousers eased the way for women in trousers more generally.
Thus, around the turn of the 20th century, cycling pants were a focus for anxieties and excitements about changing notions of acceptable femininity. As Jungnickel writes, “women’s cycle wear became visual shorthand for the ‘New Woman’ who was identified by her desire for progress, ‘independent spirit, and her athletic zeal.’” This idea of women’s cycling pants as a symbol of gender relations would persist.”