The fad of the 1890s was bicycling. Fueled by feature articles in magazines and newspapers, men and women turned to the bicycle by the thousands. Remember, this was before the automobile, so the bicycle was not just a toy – it was personal transportation.
But there was a major hindrance to women riding bicycles – their skirts. The problem was solved in several ways. First, and probably most common, was the wearing of a shorter skirt, with the hem several inches from the ground. This skirt would have been paired with bicycle boots that laced almost to the knee, or wool gaiters worn over the shoes.
But most talked about at the time were bicycling bloomers. By this time, bloomers were very common on college campuses as active sportswear, but were not yet being worn in public. As the bicycle craze progressed, it began to be suggested that the best solution to the skirt problem was bloomers. Fashion magazines began to show them and sewing patterns became available. There was also much discussion in the press about the appropriateness of bloomers, and the conclusion usually was, in women’s magazines at least, that wearers should always take care to have a skirt handy to go over the bloomers when not actually riding.
How popular were bicycling bloomers? It’s hard to separate the media hype from what was the reality. I’ve found dozens of period drawings of the bloomers, but only one actual photograph of an 1890s woman wearing them. And I’ve found many photos of women wearing the short bicycle skirt, as modeled by Miss Elizabeth Ewing, above.
There are many historic cartoons lampooning bicycle bloomer wearers. I’d think it would have taken a very strong individual to have the courage to have worn them in most towns. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a set for sale, but then, I haven’t looked for them either.
I did, quite by accident, run across this jacket, which the long-time collector I got it from called a bicycling jacket. After consulting with people more knowledgeable than me (AKA, the Vintage Fashion guild members) I’ve learned that is most likely what it is, and that it dates a little later than my Glass of Fashion illustration, 1902-1904. The full bishop sleeves and the fullness in the back would have given the rider an extra measure of mobility. And I do love that little capelet effect!
For those who want to see more of the illustrations from the 1898 Glass of Fashion, I’ve scanned the two bicycling costumes that were in the contents.