Advances in cycling have had an impact on progress in gender equality. A lesson of objects.
I rushed to a 10-minute meeting with the director of the organization where I had just started working. In an attempt to look less disheveled than usual, I wore a long red skirt. And I was cycling quickly to get there on time.
Cycling has become increasingly difficult as I approached work. In the end, I could not ignore the resistance to my pedaling, and I saw the culprit: the bottom of my skirt was caught in the spokes of the bike. I tried to gently untangle it. When this did not work, I started pulling. The skirt tore unevenly, the ends marked by unpleasant spots of bike grease. I seemed to have argued with an urban fox and lost.
Dressing up for a day trip should be simple. Yet this becomes more complicated when the commuter involves a bicycle, and when the clothing is intended for a woman.
Trousers, like bicycles, have long been associated with mobility. Despite the confinement of each leg, or rather because they limit each leg, the pants allow greater freedom of movement: freedom from worrying about exposing too much skin, freedom from the updrafts and, as the slaughter of the skirt shows, freedom from the material flowing stuck where it should not.
This is not trivial. Victorian-era newspapers report (and perhaps sensationalized) female cyclists who die because of massive skirts that have blown up and obscure their point of view, or dresses that have wrapped around their pedals. A letter published in the Daily Press in 1896, for example, commented on the death of a cyclist, “I think he failed because he could not see the pedals, because the fluttering skirt was hiding them from his point of view, and she had to fiddle for them He could only have taken a momentary look at their position, he would have a good chance to save her life. “The critics took such tragedies to argue that women were not fit to ride a bike. For some, it was cheaper to blame women’s audacity on riding a bicycle than the restraining garments that made it so dangerous.
As is traditional with things that allow women more freedom, both women’s cycling and women’s cycling pants have caused a lot of moral panic. During the 1890s, when the bicycle exploded in popularity among the upper and middle classes of the United Kingdom, journalists and others condemned the cyclists for their unbridledness. Women on bicycles have been targeted by objects and obscenity. These non-sitting women, some worried people, could be forced to ride to engage in prostitution or lesbianism.
Even cycling pants, along with women on bicycles, were a target of ridicule. British travelers sadly reported in the memories and in the travel magazines of 1890 as The Rational Dress Gazette that the French were more casual about the women who wore bicycle pants. (It’s possible that they went too far in the opposite direction, because until 2013 it was officially illegal for women to wear trousers in Paris unless they were on bikes or horses.)
Bloomers, essentially voluminous pants tied to the ankle and often worn under short skirts, had been popularized in 1850 by women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer. And in the seventies of the nineteenth century, the United Kingdom experienced a penny fashion, one of the many delusions of the bicycle. A penny-farthing, or high-wheeler, consisted of a large wheel, where the cyclist would perch, connected to a smaller wheel. This was largely a trend for wealthy youth, and it is likely that the few women who participated had to borrow men’s clothes to do it. It would have taken decades before women’s clothes, including the bloomers and the wear of the convertible cycle, were widely seen on female cyclists.
The key period for women’s cycling apparel was the cycling mania of 1890, when the modern standard bike (the “safety bicycle”) became fashionable. This period is at the center of Kat Jungnickel, a sociologist of cycling at the University of London and author of Bikes and Bloomers: Victorian Women Inventors and The Straordinary Cycle Wear. The related Bikes and Bloomers project, led by Jungnickel, excavates the cycling clothing patented by Victorian women in 1890 and reconstructs some drawings. Seeing the heavy and mechanically inventive Victorian designs on London’s contemporary cyclists is jarring. In today’s fashion world, prêt-à-porter, a lover of free time, these garments are clearly memorabilia.
As part of the rational apparel movement, which sought to make conventional Victorian clothing more comfortable, cycling helped to emphasize the absolute non-practicality of corsets. Many of the drawings of 1890 also took over the bloomers of several decades earlier. The innovators were creating new designs for the bloomer and combining the trousers with the skirts in various ways.
And they were often darkening bloomers altogether. Convertible cycling clothing often included hardware such as weighted pulleys, hooks and elaborate belts. Since cycling pants were so challenged 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 the trousers. The “women’s sports suit” by Ida M. Rew, patented in 1895, hid her trousers under a wide skirt and attached them to a bodice.
But some activists, including members of women’s cycling associations, have denigrated these convertible designs because of their ability to hide in plain sight. It was argued that increasingly mobile women – whose lifestyles demanded more and more practical clothes – had to be publicly visible. The obvious sportswear has also helped to make the public more comfortable with the idea of women in trousers. As reported by Bury, Norwich Post and Suffolk Herald, on December 2, 1890, “public opinion seems very lenient to innovations that have a real raison d’etre and are not the result of any particular theory.” Women in cycling pants loosened their way for women in their trousers more generally.
Thus, around the turn of the twentieth century, cycling pants were a focal point for the anxieties and excitements about changing the notions of acceptable femininity. As Jungnickel writes, “women’s cycling apparel has become a visual shortcut for the ‘new woman’ who has been identified by her desire for progress, ‘independent spirit and her athletic zeal’.” The idea of women’s cycling pants as a symbol of gender relations persist.
The trousers became more acceptable garments for British and American women during the world wars, when women on the home front were increasingly called (and authorized) to do what had previously been seen as men’s work. Cycling pants, such as trousers for the factory, agriculture, and finally office work, had both practical and symbolic advantages. They have helped to legitimize the presence of women in traditionally male spheres.
Claire McCardell, a designer of sportswear, has helped make women’s cycling pants more fashionable. Although less elegant than today’s designs, they were clearly much more functional than large florets or Inspector Gadget-style convertible cycle clothing. The culottes of McCardell post-war cyclists were a simplified version of the hybrid skirt / pants of the beginning of the century. The volume suggested the shape of a skirt, but the bifurcation of the legs of the pants helped to pedal.
The transformations of the cycling fashion that followed were, like the embrace of sewing machines and the culture of patents in the Victorian era, partly rooted in an embrace of technology. An American chemist invented spandex in the late 1950s, following innovations with other stretch fabrics. Synthetic fabrics allowed designers to move away from the weight of wool and silk viscosity. The Lycra spandex brand would be associated in particular with cycling uniforms such as braces, whose shoulder straps were more comfortable than the complicated systems experienced by the Victorians.
This was for better or for worse. The hostility of the driver to cyclists sometimes manifests itself in epithets like “Lycra lions” and the assumption that cyclists dressed in lycra are rich, aggressive and authorized. (To be fair, dedicated cycling gear remains expensive, so there is a reasonable association with high income.) This belief makes some drivers less cautious than the elastane set.
But the synthetic clothing revolution has benefited disproportionately from male cyclists. Take the saddle sores, which are not limited to riders. Hardcore cyclists are familiar with the redness and rubbing that can afflict the delicate regions that come in contact with a bike saddle. A rider can increase comfort by adjusting the riding position and the saddle. But another important element is clothing, and it took a surprisingly long time to wear cycling clothes to complement the needs of women.
The chamois is the padded segment of the bike shorts, which helps protect the sensitive parts of a cyclist. While modern bike shorts with suede foam have existed since the 1980s, it took years for camo designers to commonly adapt the cuts and padding levels to fit the anatomy of women (like the wider bones). There is still a noticeable lack of innovation for cyclists who want to run during their periods, since the cycling shorts are designed to be worn without underwear.
This does not mean that the performance bike shorts are necessary for the average person on a bike. It is striking that in cities with infrastructures or culture that love cycling, such as Amsterdam or Beijing, cycling shorts and even helmets are not standard parts of the cycle. As Bella Bathurst, the author of The Bicycle Book, wrote about the cycling culture of Copenhagen, “Sites like CopenhagenCycleChic.com make it clear that on a bicycle with a skirt guard and a step-through frame, it is perfectly possible to ride through the city with stiletto heels, two children and several large objects with kitchen furniture. ”
Obviously, the image of an effortless chic bike riding creates its gender expectations of women who remain fresh and decorative even during physical exertion. However, for normal use, for ordinary people, technical cycling clothing may seem inaccessible or extravagant. As women’s day wear has become more comfortable and convenient, it has become more and more practical to ride in regular clothes, with shorts and specialized bike pants, more reserved for competitive cyclists or those who take their driving seriously.
In fact, many people have argued that focusing on cyclists’ clothing and helmets can actually be a barrier to safety, since it spreads the perception that cycling is dangerous. This reduces the safety effect in the numbers of heavy cyclists, as in Amsterdam, and transfers responsibility for the safe conditions for cycling by policymakers to individuals, as in many American cities.
Lycra is also of limited use for women whose cultural traditions do not align with tight-fitting garments. A Saudi cyclist, Baraah Luhaid, continued to have to deal with his abaya (a robe-style dress) that got stuck in his chain. This inspired her to create and pursue a patent for a bicycle abaya with legs. Luhaid is one of numerous designers who try to integrate sportswear with Islamic clothing. And her DIY attitude is a clear link with Victorian women with their sewing machines, creating their cycling gear and claiming ownership.
In modern Saudi Arabia, as in Victorian England, a new piece of clothing will not change gender roles alone. It became legal only for Saudi women to ride bikes in 2013, and even then only in certain public spaces, in the presence of a male warden. And in areas where women’s cycling is not regulated, but it’s still unusual, like in Zimbabwe, gender-based harassment can be widespread, even before short films come on the scene.
Their use has increased and decreased based on class, time period and culture. But the women’s bicycle pants are emblematic of a sort of mobility and body autonomy that are more generally associated with gender equality.