Context

Fig.2This illustration was published in ‘The Lady Cyclist’’ on Aug 29, 1896 (p.465).

It depicts a woman in cycling costume of the period; bloomers, tailored jacket with large sleeves, blouse, tie, stockings, pointed shoes and a hat.

She cycles on her own. A horse and cart closely follows. The two male passengers appear to be calling out to her and trying to attract her attention.

The caption reads: Dignity and Impudence.

The illustration suggests that the woman is attempting to cycle with dignity in the face of impudence.

 

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A letter from Kitty. J. Buckman to her friend Uriah on Aug 23, 1897, narrates similar experiences to the woman in this image:

“It certainly cannot be worse to ride in Oxford than in London, especially London suburbs. It’s awful – one wants nerves of iron. I don’t wonder now in the least so many women having given up the R.D [Rational Dress] Costume and returned to skirts. The shouts and yells of the children deafen one, the women shriek with laughter or groan and hiss and all sorts of remarks are shouted at one, occasionally some not fit for publication. One needs to be very brave to stand all that. It makes one feel mad and ones ideas of humanity at large sink to a very low standard.”

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While it was dangerous to cycle in convention dress, it wasn’t always safer to cycle in more cycle-oriented clothing.

For some onlookers, such attired and physically engaged women were seen to have relinquished their feminine roles and responsibilities in exchange for masculine behaviours. Reactions oscillated from verbal and sometimes physical abuse to receiving poor service at cafes and inns.

The letter and illustration bring to life the core themes of the project – the changing nature of gender politics, public space, emancipation, new mobility technologies in Britain during the period 1895-1899.

Bikes & Bloomers explores the socio-materiality of cycle wear in legitimising a new mobile presence for women in outdoor public space and carving out new forms of gendered citizenship in late nineteenth century Britain.

It takes as its focus the ways in which some women creatively responded to these challenges to their freedom of movement through their clothing, hacking at convention roles and representations in public and exploring new ways of moving in and through public space.

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Feminist Cycling Histories

This project emerged during my role as a post-doctoral researcher on the ESRC funded Cycling Cultures research project at the University of East London (2010-2011). This work focused on four relatively high cycling urban areas in the UK (Hull, Hackney, Bristol and Cambridge) to find out why contemporary cycling thrives in particular places. It involved a mixed methods approach, featuring ethnography, visual analysis and semi-structured interviews. Although it was not a core question, respondents, and particularly women, often talked about what they wore to cycle and the reactions it catalysed from onlookers while on the bike, at work and in social and other public contexts. What cyclists wore seemed to matter in terms of carving out a legitimate (social, physical and political) space. This grew to become a significant theme in our project. For many, cycle wear reflected and produced ideas of being a ‘proper cyclist’ (Aldred 2010), were part of their cycling sensory strategy for dealing with hostile urban environments (Jungnickel and Aldred 2013) and as a way of negotiating work, personal and commuting identities (Aldred 2012).

Curious about the intersections of gender, cycle wear and public space I sought to locate these findings in a historical context. With the question in mind – Why does (women’s) cycle wear (still) matter? – I initially undertook archival research in six key libraries and archives: British Library, Hull History Centre, Hull University, Cycle Touring Club (CTC) Headquarters in Guildford, Manchester Gallery of Costume and the National Cycle Archive at Warwick University. Materials took the form of newsletters, newspapers, periodicals, personal diaries and correspondence, photographs, advertising campaigns and registered patents. Periodicals included The Lady Cyclist (1896-1899), The Queen (1896), The Lady’s Own Magazine (1898), The Hub (1896), The Rational Dress Gazette (1898-1900), The Wheeler (1884-1894) and The CTC Gazette (1888-1898) as well as various newspaper clippings.

The value of newspaper editorial and popular periodicals, and in particular cartoons, opinion pieces and photographs is well established in historical studies (Constanzo 2010; Parker 2010; Kinsey 2011b; Cox 2012). I note as many have done before that media and editorial can never be seen to truly reflect the view of society nor represent the spectrum of experiences of women cyclists. There are a number of other reasons why these materials can only ever present a partial view. First, many of the periodicals I draw upon were specifically tailored for middle and upper class readership, filled as they are with the portraits and antics of the upper echelons of society. Cycling in the late nineteenth century, due to its cost and the luxury of leisure was a predominantly upper class pursuit. Second, much like women’s roles in other facets of Victorian and Edwardian society, less is known about their engagement in public life in comparison to men. Women during this period were rarely cast as history tellers and their stories more often silenced or overlooked in the context of masculine technological achievements (see Wacjman 1991, 2004; Schwartz-Cowan 1999). Their presence at sporting events was largely constructed (and controlled) as ‘novelty’ athletes, carnival performers or spectators at special ‘Lady’s Days’ or routinely overlooked in contrast to ‘proper’, as in male, athletes and record breakers; a practice that stubbornly continues today.

It is worth noting that many (often male) writers and editors of the materials I draw upon would not have been present at segregated women’s sporting or indeed experienced or endured first hand the vitriol of fellow road users on a daily basis. In fact it is only recently that scholars have looked closely at the role women played in the history of cycling (Simpson 2005; Kinsey 2011). In a study of Australian women racers, Kinsey deliberately sets out to ‘re-insert female Australian competitive cyclists into the historical record’ (2011:1375). Although more men cycle raced than women, scholars have argued that women nonetheless played a significant role in shaping cycling practices, technology and gender identity. In tackling more everyday physical activity, this article follows the direction of scholars who argue that although women’s involvement in sporting and other physical activity was limited, it is none-the-less imperative to understanding the larger spectrum of Victorian life. Even as spectators, women’s presence is viewed as essential to the popularity and prestige of particular sports (Mackintosh and Norcliff 2007). Referencing Parratt’s (1998) work, Shultz argues that by ‘‘broadening our conception of sport’ we might begin to construct more nuanced understandings of women’s history’ (2010:1135).  It is a position that reinforces what Bijker has argued about how the ‘stories we tell about technology reflect and can also affect our understanding of the place of technology in our lives and our society’ (1995:1).

With support from the ESRC, Intel and Goldsmiths I am deepening this research, undertaking more archival research and working in collaboration with a range of interdisciplinary creative practitioners to hand-make a series of garments. The project, in contextualising women’s cycle wear in the broader public landscape, seeks to tell more stories about the history of women’s cycling and in the process suggest alternate ways of thinking about how cycling cultures and practices have been shaped and continue to shape contemporary forms of (gendered) mobility.