The Bicycle Starts a Revolution

A couple dressed in cycling clothes congratulates themselves for leaving the cumbersome fashions of the nineteenth century behind.
THE BICYCLE possessed some kind of magic, its mute presence transforming American society.  Originally known as a velocipede, the bicycle had been around since the early nineteenth century, but only after 1890 did the contraption become safer and gain popularity throughout the States as something associated with freedom and pleasure.

This illustration from Puck shows a couple dressed in cycling clothes congratulating themselves for having broken free of the stiff clothes that imprisoned their ancestors.  The figures to the left and right encapsulate the fashions of the nineteenth century, ranging from the Empire fashions of the 1800s down to the clothes that the couple and their contemporaries would normally wear.  Almost without exception, nineteenth-century women had worn skirts that reached to the floor, sometimes cinched up with bustles and tassels, or pouffed out with flounces, crinolines, or hoops.  Such clothing assumed a lady’s activity would be limited to walking.  How radical, then, to see a lady cyclist in pants, her calves and ankles plainly revealed.

No matter what the decade, fashion had marked out a difference between women and men clearly.  Men’s fashions were normally freer than women’s, but, even when they weren’t, women’s clothing remained readily distinguishable from theirs.

Men and women who donned cycling clothes achieved a kind of parity, which the artist represents as an achievement.  Both sexes wear the full, knee-length trousers that were called bloomers for women and knickers for men.  The man has shed his jacket, while the woman sports a hat that’s practically mannish.   Her jacket has the strange mutton-chop sleeves that women wore in 1890s, but it’s completed with a vest, a flat shirt-front, and bow tie.  Could it be that women and men are unexpectedly alike?  The cyclists eye one another, he with alarm, she with joy.

Image: from this source

2 responses

    • So true, Michele–in the Gilded Age, women suddenly became a lot more active–even upper-class women eventually shook off their chaperones : )
      Hope you are well.
      Best wishes,