Opposition to female cyclists who used the bicycle as a tool for anything other than graceful, leisurely riding was strongly revealed in the furore that followed the achievement of Tessie Reynolds, who, aged sixteen years old, raced from Brighton to London and back (a distance well over a hundred miles) in 8 and a half hours in 1893. This is was not a cause for celebration within the cycling press. Dubbing the whole event a ‘lamentable incident’, Cycling argued that,
‘Every wheelman who has managed to retain a belief in the innate modesty and sense of becomingness in the opposite sex, will hear with real pain, not unmixed with disgust, of what we will call a lamentable incident that took place on the Brighton road early last Sunday.’
Cycling’s main objection to Tessie Reynold’s achievement came from their belief that,
‘Nothing is more calculated to give cycling for women a set-back than this racing, above all, the sight of a young girl tearing her heart out along the highway, cheered on by a crew of male pacemakers. Gentlemen of England, doth (you) like the picture?’
Cycling did not just object to Tessie Reynold’s style of riding. The editorial also included a complaint about her manner of dress, which Cycling had heard was,
‘Of a most unnecessary masculine nature and scantiness.’
As you can see in the picture above, Tessie Reynold’s wore cycling attire which revealed, horror of horrors, her legs and calfs. In the late-Victorian period for a woman to reveal even a clothed pair of legs in public was seen to challenge her feminine modesty and ‘becomingness’. Ideas of feminine beauty were very much focussed on women appearing refined and graceful, and it was deemed that women’s legs, particularly those belonging to ‘stouter’ women, did not fill this criteria. As one writer in the Yorkshire Evening Post put it,
‘A pair of legs working like cranks on a pair of pedals is ugly enough in a man; but in a woman, especially with abnormal hips, the sight is a caricature of the sweetest and best half of humanity’.
As such it was commonly advised that women wore skirts whilst cycling. These were not ideal from a practical point of view. These skirts were often heavy and cumbersome, offered a large surface area to any headwinds and made the very act of pedalling much more exerting. In the words of one lady cyclist,
‘A skirt is intrinsically feminine, though it is idiotically irrational for cycling.’
There was also the additional worry of skirts getting caught in the wind and flying up whilst a lady cycled. A vicar described how watching ladies cycling down hills in a wind had led to him and a ‘group of idle lads at the street corner’ seeing,
‘What none of the male sex ought to be allowed to see, and what every woman with any pretention to modesty takes great care to avoid being seen.’
Efforts were made to combat these problems. Many women wore narrower, shorter skirts which rested an inch or two above the ankle, with knickerbockers underneath to replace the layer of petticoats. However, although an improvement this attire still did not offer the same freedom, safety and lightness as trousers.
This meant that, like Tessie Reynolds, some women took to wearing ‘rational dress’ whilst cycling, costume which consisted of either knickerbockers or ‘bloomers’ being worn without a skirt on-top of them. These were often accompanied with a jacket, cut in a manner similar to those worn by men. As revealed by the case of Tessie Reynolds, the British public were not exactly enamoured with this new form of feminine attire. There will be another article about how women in rationals were received by the wider British public, but for the time being here is one women’s description of riding through a town in rationals from 1895.
‘I was favoured on numerous occasions with selections from ‘Daisy Bell.’ Thirteen persons saluted me with the polite command of, ‘Git yer ‘air cut!’ Eight were extremely anxious to know my tailor’s address; an even greater number requested the name of my hatter. A ragged urchin ran alongside for some distance, and asked, ‘Could yer oblige us with a match, guv’nor?’ A barber further down the road went one better by standing on his step and enquiring, ‘Shave sir?’ Several pedestrians thoughtfully suggested that I should, ‘Git orf and push!’ While an elderly lady imparted the information I was, ‘a forward young minx!’ One man- how I thanked that man- doffed his oily cap and exclaimed, ‘Bravo! I likes yer pluck!’ In spite of the attention my appearance excited, several acquaintances passed me without notice.’