Future Fashion & Mobility Trend Report:

Technology Brings Social Change

Part 4: How Women's Rights & Technology Ride Together

The Future Mobility Trend Report is a collection of short stories, facts, and anecdotes about historical changes in fashion tech. Our series is a deep dive into some of the greatest changes in fashion that were born out of technological advancements. The first part of the series covered how materials allowed humans to travel into space. The second part of the series focused on innovation out of necessity. The previous post discussed how innovation through iteration led to the development of the zipper. This is the fourth installment of our series.

There are many times throughout history where technology changed more than simply fashion  — it has also pushed and tested normal societal views. For women, there’s no greater case of that then when bicycles came along.

When bicycles first arrived on the scene, the construction of the bicycles made it impossible for a woman to mount in the traditional and modest clothing of that time, plus the earliest models of the bicycle weren’t super user-friendly. However, this changed after the introduction of the “safety bicycle” in the 1880s and 1890s. Now this safety bicycle, this was a fiiiine vehicle. Before it, there were the “penny-farthing” machines, which had a really high back tire and a tiny front tire. With the development of the safety bicycle, the bicycle went from being a dangerous toy to being a serious mode of transportation for people of all ages including women.

But not everyone was happy about the independence the bicycle bestowed women.

Haters had a field day when women started riding bikes. Columnists wrote many ridiculous things, including the Sunday Herald in 1891 saying, “I think the most vicious thing I ever saw in all my life is a woman on a bicycle—and Washington is full of them. I had thought that cigarette smoking was the worst thing a woman could do, but I have changed my mind.” Gasp! Vicious bicycle riding women going crazy around cities. Yikes.

Actually, the vicious part was the response to women riding bicycles. People would hurl insults and objects. Papers tried to dissuade women from riding them with the fear of death, sharing stories of women dying from their dress interfering with the bike. While non-women-bicycle-enthusiasts thought the answer was that women shouldn’t ride bikes, the bicycle enthusiasts simply thought – hey, corsets and huge dresses are great and all but we could just wear something different.

“Interest in conventional dress is rapidly disappearing and forms a less interesting topic of conversation among the fair sex than ever before. Now we hear on all sides, ‘what kind of a bicycle costume have you; if your skirt narrow or wide, and your leggings a good fit about the ankles?’,” wrote in the Los Angeles Daily Herald.

Bicycle costumes made their way into the mainstream. There was an overall mindset that a bicycle costume was practical and functional. This created a bit more leniency with it than what the response to bloomers, which were just loose-fitting knee-length or ankle-length knickers, created when they were first introduced in the 1850s. The need for bicycle costumes also led to additional accessories to make sure a woman was fully and modestly clothed at all times while on a bicycle.

“Bicycle leggings, gaiters, boots and shoes of special design are shown in the shoe stores and department stores in great variety,” says a writer in the New York World. “The fashionable makers of custom shoes find an incidental boom in their business directly connected with the bicycle craze and some of their finest and costliest work is in the line of laced or buttoned leggings and boots of extra length in the legs.”

Womenswear was changing due to the need for a new costume. Newspapers (written by mostly men) would post tips on how one should look while riding a bike: including how one’s skirt should look, how one’s leggings should look, how one’s boots should look, what colors one should wear, and how to fold a skirt properly on a bike and more.

In 1895, Ida M. Rew patented an Athletic Suit for Ladies. This was a response to limit the harassment women would receive while wearing pants or bloomers on a bicycle. In the patent she wrote: “The objects of my invention are to provide a safe, reliable, and easy lady’s suit, graceful in outline, hygienic in construction, light in weight, and of handsome and modest appearance, and while constructed mainly with reference to producing a perfect garment for lady cyclists it may be, nevertheless, admirably adapted to general athletic use.”

In other words (that aren’t dripping with 1890s oppression), she wanted to create an outfit that included a full skirt but hid trousers under the skirt which were then attached to a bodice. This would keep men happy and women, well, modest.

Many women weren’t super happy with this kind of compromise because it was a compromise. During this time, women weren’t just trying to get on bikes, they were also fighting for the right to vote. Suffragettes were battling for women’s rights and the popularity with the bicycle was a chance for women to shed the typical dress of the day and start wearing something more practical, like pants! Two of the leading suffragettes in the United States, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were both quoted saying, “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle.”

Bloomers were invented in 1851 but not widely accepted or really accepted at all. Many countries and American cities and states, outlawed the wearing of bloomers or pants on women. But as the bicycling craze took hold, the practicality of bloomers took greater hold.

Some women preferred to just go full-on pants mode while others favored the more subtle approach of Rew’s patented athleisure. But regardless, women in athletic wear helped pave the way to women wearing trousers from day-to-day.

Still, it’d be hard to attribute just one cause to what really led women to wear pants daily but it seems that the right culmination of technological advances, function, and feminism brought about one of the greatest changes in fashion during the twentieth century.

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Written by Erinn Springer. Edited by Lion Blau. Illustration provided by Kate Kilpatrick-Galbraith and to view more of her work go to https://www.instagram.com/vwolfeart/.

Adrienne LaFrance. 2014, June 26. How the Bicycle Paved the Way for Women’s Rights https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/06/the-technology-craze-of-the-1890s-that-forever-changed-womens-rights/373535/

Christine Ro. 2018, April 15. How Cycling Clothing Opened Doors for Women https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/04/how-cycling-clothing-opened-doors-for-women/558017/

Rew, Ida M. 1895. Patent Identifier No. 545,173. Location: United States Patent Office. 

The herald. [microfilm reel] (Los Angeles [Calif.]), 02 June 1895. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042461/1895-06-02/ed-1/seq-7/>

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, September 18). History of the bicycle. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:35, October 10, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_the_bicycle&oldid=860121564

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, May 22). Safety bicycle. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:08, October 12, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Safety_bicycle&oldid=842403980

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, July 4). Women and trousers. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:08, October 12, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Women_and_trousers&oldid=848859140