I ride a bike but I would not call myself a cyclist. I wear everyday clothes, do not own a piece of lycra and my wicker basket is usually brimful of bags, books and assorted paraphernalia.
I thank the many women, so wonderfully highlighted and celebrated in Bikes and Bloomers by Kat Jungnickel, for their courage, ingenuity and determination to have ‘nerves of iron’ to pave the way for women taking up public space on their bicycles.
While much has been documented about the bicycle itself, little has been known about the clothing which allowed Victorian women to take to their velocipedes.
Bikes and Bloomers entwines invention, sewing and some frankly badass women who refused to wait patiently for the organic change which would allow them to venture more into the public sphere – they went out to drive the social change.
Conventional women’s clothing made cycling not only incredibly difficult but also potentially life threatening due to flowing, multiple layers of skirts getting caught not only by the cycle itself, but also passing carriages.
So, in the late 19th Century, women, and some men, took it upon themselves to challenge the status quo and create not only clothing but also liberation for the many women who wished to take to two wheels and expand their world.
Thanks to women like Kitty J Buckman, a prolific letter writer and cycling lover, the book details what faced the likes of Kitty and her friends when they ventured out. In 1897, Kitty wrote “The shouts and yells of the children deafen one, the women shriek with laughter or groan and hiss all sorts of remarks are shouted at one, occasionally some not fit for publication. It’s awful – one wants nerves of iron.” Another woman documented “My friend and I bicycle in ordinary everyday dress, yet we never go out without receiving a fair amount of this so-called chaff…and occasionally we have had caps etc thrown at us.” This is one of the numerous elements of the book where you cannot help reflect on how little some things have changed since Kitty’s days. Women still face catcalls, abuse and more than occasionally ‘remarks not fit for publication’. Stationary at traffic lights appears to be an open invitation for some vehicle drivers to comment, unsolicited, on your appearance.
The ingenuity of the clothes designs is jaw dropping. Convertible costumes were heavily patented during this period. They allowed women to convey an outward appearance of ‘normal’ dress until getting on her cycle. An elaborate, hidden, system of ‘weights and pulleys, waxed cords, stitched channels, hooks, loops and buttoning systems’ converted skirts into capes and gathered material out of the way of wheels. ‘Adaptable gusset action’ was also part of a patent for an ‘Improved Cycling Skirt’.
Women daring to take to the streets on their cycles understandably caused controversy and their ‘femininity’ questioned. They were expected to remain graceful and elegant and the ‘lady cyclist’ was expected to avoid becoming ‘a woman who allows herself to be seen hot and red with exertion’. Again, this still resonates today with campaigns such as This Girl Can still necessary to articulate that females can participate in sport and not be embarrassed to sweat, grimace or go red in the face.
Bikes and Bloomers is a glorious book – not just for those who enjoy cycling but for anyone who wants to learn more about the wonderful women who were brave, inventive, sisterly and political. As is too often the case, women are erased from the history books and their achievements not recognised. Kat’s meticulous research and writing rights that wrong.