Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Dressing for Bicycling Success

May 17, 2017 Archive Insight

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Women's Cycling Suit, 1890-1900. THF 13335

When a woman today prepares to go for a spin on a bicycle on a beautiful day, she might pull on jeans, shorts or even cycling shorts and a t-shirt. Women cyclists don’t think twice about this casual clothing combination—it’s comfortable and practical. Never mind that the outfit appears very much like a man’s, and that’s just fine.

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Ferris “Good Sense” corset advertisement, Ladies Home Journal, June 1897. THF 133356

However, this was hardly true a century ago, when cycling became widely popular in America. While both men and women enjoyed the sport, women found it particularly liberating (no chaperone was required) and invigorating (exercise and the looser corsets worn for cycling allowed their lungs to expand). Yet female bicyclists had a real dilemma. What in the world should they wear on the “silent steed?”

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This young woman shows off her bicycle and bloomer outfit in this photograph taken in Brooklyn, New York about 1895. THF 203404

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In this photograph taken about 1890, Cyclist Margaret Kirkwood wears a more modest bicycling outfit. Long skirts like these rather easily became entangled in the bicycle chain. THF 203414

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This fashionable and expensive linen skirt, dating from the late 1890s, is divided into two wide leg sections. THF 29559

When the bicycling craze first began about 1890, most American women preferred long skirts. After all, real ladies—modest and upstanding—wore long skirts. However, these cyclists soon found that such long skirts got tangled in chains and sent their wearers hurtling to the ground. Those who thumbed their nose at conventional dress donned divided skirts or, even more extreme, short bloomers that cinched below the knee. While such an outfit seems quite modest today, over 100 years ago most Americans believed that if a woman dressed like a man and wore such masculine “trousers,” she risked becoming man-like and unfeminine. Bystanders might jeer at female cyclists dressed in bloomers. Fathers, brothers or beaux could not fathom that the women they loved would be so daring.

Brave female cyclists ignored the criticism and insisted on wearing these bloomers and divided skirts for safety and comfort. As more and more women found the outfit to be safe as well as rather attractive, the fashion began to catch on.

By the early 1900s, American men realized that women who wore such sporty, “masculine” outfits really were just the same old gals they had known all along. In fact, bloomers became rather popular for all sorts of sports, from canoeing to gymnastics to croquet. The "New American Girl" of the early 20th century actually became associated with sporty clothing—she was beautiful, fit due to exercise, and had some university schooling. But it had taken some perseverance to push through the prejudices about appropriate clothing for the new, more active American woman.

The move toward more rational clothing, designed to be appropriate to an activity, was part of the vast change in opportunities for women during this time.

As Demorest’s Monthly Magazine had proclaimed back in October 1882, “…there is a vast amount of real work for every woman to attend to, and her dress must have some reference to it.”

This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series and was authored by Former Curator Nancy E.V. Bryk.

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