The world changed rapidly for women living in the bourgeois and industrialized world in the 1890s. Kat Jungnickel demonstrates how cycling attire was one site where these changes occurred most dramatically.
The transformation in clothing arose out of a conflict that the bicycle began. If women were going to start riding the bicycle—and they did en masse—then the clothing they could wear in public was going to have to change too. A movement for women’s “rational dress” emerged. What served as appropriate attire for women in society was not suitable for the same women on a bicycle. It was the end of the Victorian era, and this was a very radical idea. Gender was an even more ideological matter then, and clothing was one means for regulating gender norms. Corsets, petticoats and all sorts of other ornaments and details served to mark women as female. They were horribly uncomfortable to wear while riding a bike, not to mention dangerous: many women were injured when their clothing got caught in a bicycle’s chain or spokes. Dress reform sought to correct the disconnect between women’s clothing and physical activity. Rational dress, or simply “rationals,” became one of the catchwords for women’s advancement in the 1890s and it was directly related to the bicycle.
What actually constituted rational attire was the subject of debate, however. Whatever women wore, it still had to balance practicality with propriety. Those who went too far were publicly censured and catcalled, or worse, bullied and accused of moral depravity. There was no way of accounting for what strangers might say or do, and so many erred on the side of caution and continued to wear dresses, altering their bicycles with step-through frames, chain guards and wheel cages. Others did not care what others thought and dressed exactly like men.
This lack of clarity created opportunities for dressmakers and designers.
Jungnickel demonstrates how England’s interest in cycling in the 1890s coincided with patent law reform. No longer the sole station of engineers, intellectuals and other professionals, now anyone could apply for a patent. This meant that suddenly a new generation of women had access to securing intellectual property. Jungnickel zeroes in on dressmakers and how they used patents to meet the growing need for rational dress in the cycling community, especially those dressmakers who designed dual purpose clothing: some made outfits that could serve as rational attire when riding a bike, but would transform into more conventional dresses when the wearer got off the bike. She looks at the various bi-fold dresses, hooks, loops devices, knickerbockers and other cyclewear. She is interested in this sort of reversible clothing because it shows not only the ingenuity of dressmakers, but also the methods nascent feminism employed to navigate through a rapidly transformational era that nevertheless remained strongly conservative. What makes her book particularly enjoyable is her effort to recreate some of these garments. She is meticulous in her effort to be accurate, depending on the design drawings and patent records. Her students and friends modelled the clothing and she writes about their functionality and how successfully they transform. These patent “interviews,” as she calls them, make up the bulk of her book and are very interesting.
An especially noteworthy section of Jungnickel’s book deals with studio photographs of women on bicycles. She shows the role of photography in establishing an iconography of independent, active and modern women. First, these images cemented the independence of women by always photographing them alone, sometimes in public space, but normally in a studio with a backdrop that implied public space. The photos were emblems of independent and competent unchaperoned young women. Second, the portraits demonstrated that physical activity was a natural station of women. They always look confident and daring. The images imply that the person in it has the skills and endurance to ride. Sometimes the women are dressed very conservatively but very often they are wearing rationals. Photos of women in racing attire exist too.
Lastly, the images implied that these women were connected to modernity and progress. Not only was the bicycle considered a modern wonder at the time, but photography was too. A photo portrait on your bicycle might have been the most radically modern thing you could have in your possession at the time. Jungnickel adds that these images would have been distributed carefully. They may have been sent to sisters or beaus. They have may have simply been retained for personal satisfaction. Whatever the case, these sorts of portraits are clear demonstrations of feminine desire for independence, health and progress. We are accustomed to how visual culture determines women as objects of desire; these portraits from the 1890s present them as agents with desires of their own.