The last few weeks have involved contacting a whole range of costume, sporting and women’s archives to ensure we aren’t making something that already exists, or that if we are, it is within the context of having learnt from looking, or from ‘asking things of things’. If we are to find something it will alter our our understanding of the construction, fabrics, colours and styles. There is enormous value in seeing the clothes up close that helps us better understand the lives and activities of Victorian women who wore them. Up to now we have been primarily working with archival images, a method that generates a great deal of information and unique frustrations:
How does that look from another angle? What’s underneath it? what colour was it? Is it heavy? How is it fastened? Is it in 1 piece, 2, 3 or more? Is it restrictive? Was it worn? Repaired? We ask these and hundreds more questions that a photograph cannot answer.
The curators and textiles conservators I have been in contact with have opened up so many more leads than I can actively follow – networks of collections spanning the National Archives, DATS, individual collections housed in private estates now managed by The National Trust- regional fashion archives all around the UK.
The list expands with every lead.
Occasionally something potentially relevant comes up, which could warrant a second look, such as this Riding Habit held in the National Trust collection, which would have been worn by a woman riding side saddle. The techniques of construction, such as leather and buckles, and the pattern of design, could reveal things about the ways in which engineering was hidden from plain sight in what appears to be everyday item of women’s clothing.
Ali Wells, the Keeper of Collections at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry tells me she is aware of a an edwardian motorcycle outfit along with the machine (both Edwardian) in private hands somewhere on the Isle of Mann which belonged to Muriel Hind- the first woman to compete in motorcyle competitions in the UK. This is a great example of women, technology, sport and clothing in the early 1900s.
Muriel Hind, born 1882, was a keen cyclist in her teenage years, but by the age of 20 she was competing in and winning races because she found cycling “too slow”. She started riding a Singer ‘Motor Wheel’, illustrating links between the engineering worlds of the bicycle and the sewing machine. Her husband ran the Birmingham based Rex Motorcycles, from whom Muriel later specified a new motorbike for herself in 1907 with an open frame (similar to a ladies step through ordinary) bicycle, which was known as the Blue Devil, illustrating her impact on technologies and spaces of male sporting activities. This allowed Rex to break into the female market.
A record in the Coventry Transport Museum wiki describes her style:
“As a lady, Hind was also determined to cycle in a graceful manner and soon adopted a style that became closely associated with her – a hat held in place with a tulle scarf, an ankle length tweed coat and skirt, gauntlet gloves and tall lace-up knee boots.”
Muriel Hind, image from MotorPioneers blog
Photograph via Motor Pioneers, originally from the Coventry Transport Museum collection
I am wondering if the full skirt she wears in these early motorcycling pictures might have been similar to costumes worn on the bicycle. The images would only have been taken 5 or 10 years apart. There were probably fewer specialist ladies motorcycle tailors than bicycle tailors at this time. Motorcycle clothes would require similar features as bicycle clothes – narrow skirt to keep from flapping about, potentially buttons for adjustments or easy changing, bloomers underneath. The images certainly resemble the illustrations and portraits in cycling periodicals.
Photographs from the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry give a slightly more high resolution image of the garments, and show a slight shift in style and quality from the portraiture of the mid 1890s.
Muriel Hind photographed in 1910, Herbert Gallery and Museum
Muriel Hind was also a writer, from 1910 writing a column in The Lady Motorcyclist, clearly referencing The Lady Cyclist. I hope to be able to find some of her early writing or mentions of her in cycling journals seeing as she was so adventurous and enjoyed putting pen to paper.
While waiting to find out if we could see the clothing, I followed a range of tangents, learning about German-born Margaret Gast who cycled competitively, winning multiple titles in the US between 1890 and 1901. Look at those bloomers and those sleeves! On a diamond frame, and leaning forward!
Sadly the hunt came to an end when the Isle of Man collector at the A.R.E Classic Bike Museum confirmed he only had the bike along with a pair of gloves, and so, as expected, we are back to having no surviving examples in the UK to view.
This grant provides a certain liberty for the making of the garments, reminding us just how undervalued these clothes were, and how hard it will be to see any existing examples making the re-creations more important. It also means we are still on the search… and makes me determined to one day see something. Maybe the US will yield something unmissable…