So with much encouragement, people across the US took up camping, hiking, and out-dooring, a general term of the time that encompassed many outdoor activities . It became clear early on that some concessions concerning dress had to be made, especially for women. One of the first American guides to outdooring was published in 1869. Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp Life in the Adirondacks, by William Murray, gives a suggestion to women from the author’s wife. Wear “a short walking dress, with Turkish drawers fastened with a band tightly at the ankle.”
These Turkish drawers were very much like the bloomers that had been advocated by women’s rights activists a few years prior and which had found a place as the bottom half of fashionable bathing costumes. Mrs. Murray argued that the Turkish drawers were more practical than petticoats.
Despite the advice of Mrs. Murray, most sources of the 1860s through the 1880s don’t mention the wearing of bloomers in place of petticoats. What was suggested was a light-weight flannel dress with a wide enough skirt hem to allow for a good stride. In 1884 Harper’s Bazar suggested that “a flannel dress should be included, by all means and it should be made as short and as light in weight as possible, so that it will be suited for mountain climbing and walks through woods where there are more briers than paths.”
By short the writer meant just a few inches shorter than what was fashionable and accepted. Even in the woods, style was important. In 1885, Outing, a magazine devoted to the outdoor life, reminded their female readers that “A great deal of your pleasure depends on having comfortable and pretty clothes, nay, even stylish, for the camping-out dress has a style and grace that can be made very effective and becoming.”
The practice of wearing knickerbockers under the hiking skirt coincided with the bicycle craze of the 1890s. The caricature of a woman in huge bloomers riding her wheel is well-known, but the wearing of exposed knickers on the street was just too extreme a style for most women. The “skirt convention” as it is called by dress historian Patricia Campbell Warner, was not easily overcome, and despite all the articles and cartoons of the period, it appears that very few women actually wore bloomer bicycle suits. This conclusion is based on the scarcity of surviving suits and the lack of photographic evidence.
Instead, women bicycle riders began wearing knickerbockers or breeches under a skirt that came to the wearer’s boot tops. This mode of dress also appealed to women hikers. Looking back in 1902, a writer for Good Housekeeping magazine stated, “One of the principal reasons camping and tramping are so popular to-day is because women are becoming more discriminating in the matter of dress. The bicycle taught us the comforts of the short skirt, having cut off trains for one sport, the next step was to evolve fashions where in we might enjoy all of nature.”
In the mid 1890s many articles that addressed the question of what to wear in the woods actually recommended a biking ensemble. From Harper’s Bazar: “For the [skirt] itself, nothing could be better than a bicycle suit of stout serviceable cloth, the skirt to reach no nearer the ground than the tops of ordinary walking boots. Under this should be worn bloomers or knickerbockers, just as in bicycling. Petticoats are as much to be avoided here as when on the wheel.”
Tomorrow: The hiking skirt becomes obsolete.