“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.”
– Letter from Kitty J. Buckman to Uriah, August 23, 1897
Kitty loved cycling but given the fact that it took ‘nerves of iron’, it clearly wasn’t always a relaxing or indeed safe pastime in late nineteenth-century Britain. This is an excerpt from one of many letters she and her cycling companions – Minnie, Jane, Uriah and Maude – wrote to each other about their experiences. In 1897 Kitty was 23 years old, and the younger sister of Sydney Savory Buckman, also known as S. S. Buckman, a committee member of the Rational Dress League. Kitty and her friends were keen cyclists and, fortunately for us over a hundred years later, ardent letter writers. Every missive describes recent or planned rides in and around Dorking, Hammersmith, Rickmansworth, Cirencester, Chippenham and Shrewton amongst other southern English towns. We learn much about what these women loved about cycling in the 1890s. They tell lively stories of the weather, length and landscape of journeys, state of the roads, cost and quality of meals and accommodation, details of companions, mechanical issues, and increasing skills and fitness. Yet, as evoked in this aging cursive script, cycling was also often fraught with verbal and sometimes even physical assault.
Why was this?
Why did some women get treated in this way?
What were Kitty and her friends doing and wearing that elicited such social violence?
And how did they respond?
A cycling craze swept through Victorian society in the 1890s. Although the velocipede had been around in various iterations since the early nineteenth century, it was the ‘Safety Bicycle’ (diamond and step-through frames still in use today) that took the nation by storm. Prices were dropping which made cycling accessible to a broader market, the invention of pneumatic tyres ensured a more pleasurable ride and bicycles were being actively marketed at women. While cycling was initially the preserve of middle and upper class citizens, a range of ages took to it and many evangelized its benefits. In 1895 Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Unit learnt to ride a bike she named ‘Gladys’ at the age of 53 and wrote A Wheel Within a Wheel to encourage others to do the same. ‘I always felt a strong attraction toward the bicycle, because it is the vehicle of some much harmless pleasure. […] Nor could I see a reason in the world why a woman should not ride the silent steed so swift and blithesome’. However, even within this popular wave, it was still considerably easier for middle and upper class men to embrace this new modern means of moving. Socially accepted ideas about masculine mobility and clothing conventions meant that male bodies fitted much easier with bicycle technology. Women’s dress, combined with the highly defined gendered norms that shaped their engagement with technology and public space were much more complicated.
While it was dangerous for women to cycle in conventional ordinary fashions, it wasn’t necessarily safer to cycle in more rational dress (such as shorter or not shirt, loosened or not corset and bloomers or knickerbockers). 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.
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 conventional roles and representations in public and exploring new ways of moving in and through public space.
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? – we 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.
Patents, similarly, are fascinating sources of data. They are time capsules that marry social and technical data. Inventors tell us their names, where they lived, vocations and, for women, married status. Each identifies a problem and solution, recommends materials and techniques, describes the target audience and suggests how it could be put to use. Patents reveal how the politics of mobility and ideas around gender, citizenship and public space have been debated, imagined and materialized onto bodies over time. They give insights not only into social and material realities but also technological imaginaries – how inventors hoped to enact different futures. Usefully for us, patents record the work of big as well as small inventors, which means they do not have to be conventionally (as in economically) successful to be valuable repositories of knowledge. Gaining first hand insights like this, especially from women at a time who had limited public voice, is rare and valuable. And if that wasn’t already enough, patents also provide handy detailed instructions for replicating inventions.
The most remarkable clothing patents of this time were for convertible cycle wear. These unique designs specifically respond to the ‘dress problem’ by enabling wearers to secretly switch ordinary clothing into cycle wear, and back again when required. Unable to locate any of these garments in museums and galleries, I set out (re)make a collection of convertible costumes and have been wearing (and inviting others into) the archive as an inventive method. With support from the ESRC, Intel and Goldsmiths I was able to work in collaboration with a range of 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.