Once upon a time, ladies decided to ride bikes.
Since that time was the Victorian era, and ladies were tight-lacing themselves right into punctured lungs, this provided an excuse for upper- and middle-class ladies to celebrate recreational and sartorial mobility, a dovetail of causes for the rational dress movement, and a perfect storm of social reform fought in the public opinion. It was a defining moment in late 19th-century aesthetics, and became instantly iconic in several sometimes-conflicting social arenas. Pop culture went wild for it. (Still does; see Sue Perkins in a fetching ensemble in The Supersizers, Kate Beaton’s rakish velocipedestrienne, and Dracula‘s attempts at bicycle suits, a sad trombone of costuming.) It also owes a debt to a movement from nearly 50 years earlier.
The rational dress movement was born in the mid-Victorian years, on a platform of “We Love Pretty Fabric, but Perhaps Less Mutilation of the Ribcage Area.” In 1849, Water-Cure Journal published a piece outlining the degree to which the multiple-petticoat, long-waist corset trends currently going were distorting the body and causing health problems. “Turkish costume” was promoted as a healthy fashion alternative; when American Amelia Bloomer publicly adopted it and included the pattern in her magazine The Lily, it took off, particularly in the States. (Rational dress advocates, technically more concerned with the absence of corsets than the length of skirts, still became synonymous with any trend that lacked body-manglers.)
The ensemble of flowing pants with knee-or-calf-length skirt, worn corsetless with a short jacket, provided unparalleled ease of motion physically. The similar social implications escaped no one.
Interestingly (though not unexpectedly), the procedures adopted by the male-run press to shame women out of bloomers are all too familiar: publications from Harper’s Weekly to Punch decried it as horribly unflattering (laaaadies), hinted its adopters had loose morals, suggested women did it it simply to spite men, and claimed the style was so masculine it threatened the fabric of society. (Punch, particularly concerned about rational dress, showed “Bloomers” proposing to bashful men, and gathering to smoke and be waited on by a man Punch bitterly describes as “one of the ‘inferior animals’.”)
The attitude of corsetless trouser enthusiasts is perhaps best encapsulated in “The bloomer’s complaint”, a self-described “very pathetic” song from 1851 that announced “I’m coming out as a Bloomer” and contained the lyrics:
“I wonder how often these men must be told
When a woman a notion once seizes,
However they ridicule, lecture or scold,
She’ll do, after all, as she pleases.”
However, the movement suffered from unceasing press scrutiny, and the more decisive blow of hoopskirts. The heavy, corded petticoats of the 1840s that had sparked resistance were now replaced by a single steel-cage crinoline, making it more lightweight than ever to have an eight-foot-wide skirt in the newest style. Over the next two decades, bustles appeared—a narrower silhouette that offered the elusive promise of being able to sit down on the first try.
But hoopskirts and bustles required corsetry so intense it verged on scaffolding, and wasp-waists were getting serious. In 1881, a Rational Dress Society was formed, desperately hoping to save the lungs, ribs, and livers of fashionable women.
They were joined—sort of—by advocates of Aesthetic Dress, the theater-kids of rational clothing, who were inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites and adopted quasi-medieval, corset-free gowns. In the 1870s, the corsetless “tea gown”—appropriated and adapted from Orientalist conceptions of Japan, Turkey, and Egypt—also gained popularity. However, it was a garment intended for meeting friends at home only – at a dinner party, only the hostess got tea-gown rights. (Conservative fashion answered with the “natural form” dress—one of fashion’s biggest lies ever, since its skirts were hobblingly narrow and the corsets longer than ever, compressing both the torso and the hips.)
The Aesthetics promoted the tea gown from the drawing room to the street, a corsetless Romantic silhouette that met with raised eyebrows. But by the early 1880s, aesthetic dress had become an acceptable, if artsy, trend for women whose societal position allowed them to suggest deshabille in their dress without being damaged by the respectability politics that governed the lower classes. And though it was a more relaxed silhouette, it was also decidedly feminine.
Then came bicycles.
As the velocipede was introduced as a leisure activity for women amid trendsetting upper classes at the end of the 19th century, Rational Dressers advocated for ladies who wanted to ride bikes without getting mangled by long skirts. (Newspapers loved to report grisly accidents, either as evidence that 1890s fashion was out of control, or evidence ladies shouldn’t ride bikes.)
However, it didn’t escape ladies that you were less likely to be mangled by your skirts if you weren’t wearing skirts to begin with, and dressmakers saw a need they fulfilled with a bicycle suit. The standard became a nipped-waist riding jacket worn over calf-length pants, often with a false skirt front, and inevitably full (to prevent glimpses of anything that might inflame men, like hips and knees and ambition).
Concern-troll periodicals produced cartoons of predictable open-mindedness, and editorial features like this lengthy etiquette guide to ‘correct’ behavior for lady cyclists, which includes warnings against going out alone at night and matchy-matchy outfits, cautions women to leave slang “to the boys,” and hands out the delightful Catch-22, “Don’t appear in public until you have learned to ride well.”
Bicycle riders who insisted on slanging their way cross-country were encouraged to dress in plain skirts, ankle-length or slightly shorter. Various gadgets were invented purely to rescue ladies from the tyranny of trousers. What women wore was seen – correctly – as a statement of intent. “Bloomers” of the past had belonged to temperance leagues and pushed for abolition; another suit that allowed for ease and mobility was the tip of an emancipation iceberg.
Thus, a cycliste became the symbol of the daring modern woman, and the press panicked, decrying rational dress as the abandonment of everything holy in the pursuit of bifurcation. Punch got right to the point: “‘Tis hardy and boyish, not girlful and coyish — /We think, as we stroll round the gaily-light room — /A masculine coldness, a brusqueness, a boldness. /Appears to pervade all this novel costume! /In ribbons and laces, and feminine graces, /And soft flowing robes, there’s a charm more or less — /I don’t think I’ll venture on dual garmenture, /I fancy my own is the Rational Dress.”
Still, not all the Punch cartoons in the world could prevent women from dropping their tight-lacing and picking up elasticized corsets and enormous bloomers for bike rides through Hyde Park. Since at this point bicycles were a mark of the leisure class who could afford to purchase and maintain them, a “rational dress suit” even became fashionable amongst trendsetters. The image of a genteel woman in her carefree bicycle ensemble became a touchstone for aspirational advertisements selling everything from bikes to seltzer.
But underneath the symbol of the cycliste was the more complicated, more threatening future she suggested. There was a connection between the suffragette movement and the rational dress movement; ladies’ publications championed both as elements of a greater emancipation movement forming a direct challenge to the system. (Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, who cycled around the world in 1895, got official sponsorship – Londonderry spring water – and espoused “the new woman” as the equal of a man, confirming fears that split skirts led to high hopes.) In a Victorian England that used reputation and social graces as currency, the idea of emancipation as fashionable – and, like most trends, was likely to sift from the hands of the powerful down into the hands of the many – caused quite a bit of social friction.
In 1898, shit got legal.
Florence Wallace Pomeroy, Lady Harberton, stopped at the Hautboy Hotel after a bike ride. She was in rational dress, featuring “dual garmenture.” The proprietor, Mrs. Sprague, denied her the ladies’ lounge, offering to serve her in the bar parlor instead. Middle-aged Lady Harberton, who didn’t want to sit in a bar parlor with men-types who were probably smoking and being middle-class everywhere, thought she’d been thrown over because of her bloomers, got the Cyclists’ Touring Club behind her, and took it to court.
It was a prime intersection of class and gender issues. As a woman, Lady Harberton was entitled to the ladies’-only space; as an upper-class lady, she was perhaps as concerned with the manners of the parlor gents as by their gender; she had definitely been treated differently because of her garmenture. The press was all over it, and when Lady Harberton took the stand, the courtroom was hosting a shade-throwing contest, and she was there to win.
Have you been to church in it? — No, certainly not, nor should I go in evening dress to church. (Laughter.)
…Why does the organ of the Rational Dress League advise members on no account to come to this Court in rational costume? — Perhaps because they thought it would not be quite fair to Mrs Sprague. It might influence the jury against her. (Loud laughter.)
…What kind of table does a lady in rational costume expect? — Exactly the kind of table that a lady in ordinary dress requires. (Laughter.)
That last answer was the material point for the case and the wider issues surrounding it. At the same time, Mrs. Sprague was under pressures beyond general patriarchal disapproval. The upper class could afford to flout conventions by which the middle class lived and died. (Mrs. Sprague testified that she didn’t refuse Lady H. service because by law, she couldn’t.) And while Mrs. Sprague claimed she had nothing against rational dress, she said, “it would ruin my business to admit ladies in knickerbockers to the coffee-room, because I should have to admit some who go along the Portsmouth road in skin tights. Lady Harberton was not in skin tights, but I could not draw the line.” Danger to the reputation of her business was a credible threat; her old-fashioned concerns reflect the class system that positioned her to either be the arbiter of decency or watch the quality of her clientele plummet. (This testimony also begs for answers re: the mysterious ladies in skin tights prowling the Portsmouth road.)
The (all-male) jury spent only minutes debating, for a vote of Not Guilty that was met with cheers; once again, patriarchy declared disdain for women with delusions of equality. But the trend wouldn’t die, and trickle-down decency to the middle classes inevitably began. The Cyclists’ Touring Club staged group outings that welcomed rational dress—and in town, at least, a genteel lady in dual garmenture had the same whiff of stylish idleness one sees on those who wear ballet warm-ups more outside a studio than in it. Suffragettes and feminists held out hope a day for 24/7 rational dress would come.
But as it turned out, the sociological effects of coffee lounges swarming with be-trousered ladies was a theory never tested. As the century turned and the lower classes turned to bicycles as inexpensive transport, posh types dropped bicycling as a tony pastime. (Necessary and reliable? Ugh, how common.) Calf-length skirts replaced dual garmenture as de rigeur for thrifty young professionals, and trendsetting types were swiftly encouraged to lace into the tightest-hipped skirts fashion had yet presented, the iconic silhouette of the Gibson Girl.
However, while the trappings of dual garmenture disappeared, emancipation was sturdier stuff; the upper-class thrill of having defied social expectation, and the emerging jobs to which middle-class young ladies bicycled, pushed the suffragette movement forward. One of the most influential groups, the Women’s Social and Political Union, was led by iron-hearted activist Emmeline Pankhurst (who wore skirts, feeling trousers were distracting to the cause). She’d get partial satisfaction in 1918 and 1919, before achieving universal suffrage for British women of legal age in 1928.
That year, Lady Vita Sackville-West was sporting wide-leg trousers; they were just coming into style, for refined young ladies of a fashion-forward sort.
Genevieve Valentine is an author, film and TV critic, and part-time costume nerd whose second novel, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (due in June), is a flapper retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks at genevievevalentine.com.