I’ve long been fascinated by the history and sociology of bicycles – the invention of the safety bicycle in the 1880’s took the world by storm – suddenly there was an affordable means of transport which allowed clerical workers in country towns to live further from their places of work, agricultural workers to travel into town. And crucially allowed women to travel outside of the house, again opening up employment opportunities for them.
The safety bicycle changed people’s lives. If you’ve any doubt, watch people cycling to work on a summer’s morning through Vondelpark in Amsterdam, men and women, on bicycles which are basically updated versions of the original single speed safety bicycle, and you can get a glimpse of how transformative the bicycle was.
Before then people would have walked, or possibly caught a steam train and walked. No cars, no busses, no trams to speak of. Basically outside of cities, no public transport, and horses were expensive to keep and maintain, even for reasonably well off people.
I recently came across a project, the link is from Radio NZ, but the project is actually based at Goldsmith’s in London, which looked at the impact of cycling on women’s clothing.
In the 1880’s and 1890’s, men’s clothing was such that, with the possible exception of bicycle clips, they could just get on and ride – the bicycle was essentially ‘instant on’. No helmets to worry about, no special clothing or lycra, it could be ridden in ordinary clothes, meaning a man could ride one to his place of work without any great difficulty.
This convenience was one of the factors that spread the rapid adoption of cycling for men.
Not so for women. Middle class women were restricted by clothing and fashion that made it difficult to travel much outside of the house – long bulky skirts, voluminous petticoats, etc. What this project looked at was how women adapted clothing so that they could still ride bicycles, but then appear respectable at the other end.
What was particularly interesting was that they looked at patents for various cycling garments, and then made up patterns to make reproductions of the garments, and then try them out – something no clothing curator would have let them do with museum pieces – experimental sociology no less.
If I’ve a criticism of the project it was that it focussed on middle class women. I would have liked to know what working women, who probably had a more restricted wardrobe and less opportunity to purchase or make up extra clothes did – which as this is period where increasing numbers of women went or work in factories, or took up new and previously unknown professions such as ‘lady typewriters”, ie typists, or indeed the large number of young single women employed as domestic servants.
That aside, it’s an interesting project, and highly innovative in its trawling of nineteenth century patents to find information about how women’s dress changed to accommodate the changes in women’s lives made possible by the safety bicycle …