The bicycle craze of the 1890s made bike riding popular with women, and clothing companies were quick to see an opportunity to market new goods to these women. Maybe I’m being overly cynical, as clothing had to adapt to meet the needs of women bicyclers. Skirts had to be shortened so they wouldn’t get caught up in the moving parts of the bike. The sleeves of jackets and blouses had to be full enough to allow movement. And corsets had to change in order for a woman to ride in comfort.
This great little catalog from the Gage-Downs Company of Chicago shows how one company worked on the corset problem. This was before the brassiere was developed around 1915, and one purpose of the corset was to support the bust. In a standard corset, the support comes from below, but in a bust supporter like these from Gage-Downs, the bust is mainly supported from the shoulders.
Another big improvement in this design was that the bicycle waist ended at the waist instead of extending over the hips. Here is more information from an 1896 Gage-Downs ad:
Graceful as the New Woman, all the time – at work – a-wheel – in negligee – is she who wears a G-D Bicycle Waist. The most sensible garment ever invented. As shown in cut, it come only to the waist, leaving the lower part of the body absolutely free. Elastic at sides, it gives with every motion of the body. Elastic shoulder straps; tape buttons for attachment to skirt or bloomers.
I love how the illustrator chose to show the bicycling women in bloomers, rather than in skirts, though most women and girls wore shortened skirts of bicycling.
The catalog also has some more conventional corsets which extend to cover the top of the hips.
And here is the 1890s version of the training bra.
I looked to see what the WWW could tell me about Gage-Downs. The company was started in 1885 by Frank Newton Gage and Lewis A. Downs. Having made a fortune in corsets, Gage sold his interest in the company in 1891. He went into the stock trade where he made even more money.
Lewis Downs has a more colorful story. He continued on with the company until he died in 1911. Unfortunately, Downs had a big secret – he had two wives, one in Chicago and another in Colorado. Upon his death the second wife claimed his property in Colorado, and was taken to court by the son of the first wife. The second “wife” was out of luck, as the marriage was not legal.
Most interestingly, the newspaper article I found, the June 14, 1911 edition of the Chicago Tribune, took the son to task for exposing his father. The headline read, “Son, for Fortune, Reveals Bigamy of Sire in Grave”!