Cycling Sources #9, Should Women Cycle?

As has been touched upon many times, the subject of women on bicycles was one which caused continued controversy and debate during the 1890s. Their riding styles, the clothes they wore, and indeed whether they should cycle at all, filled up column inches in both the cycling, and the national press.

To resolve this final question once and for all, in 1896 the women’s periodical, Hearth and Home, decided to write to a wide range of prominent individuals, asking for their opinions on the question ‘should women cycle?’

1890s cycling

Drawings of female cyclists (and selfie posers?) from the 1890s. Source: http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/bikes-1800s/1896-1899-diamond-frames/1896-butts-ordway-standish-ladys-bicycle/

These ‘prominent individuals’ were listed as including, ‘leading members of the Church, the Medical Profession, the Services, and the House of Commons’. Other than perhaps doctors, at first glance it is somewhat unclear as to how much insight Archbishops, Military Officers and M.P.s could provide into this question.

However, by seeking the opinions of these individuals, what Hearth and Home was really asking was something along the lines of, ‘is cycling a socially acceptable pastime for women to participate in?’ By having the Archbishop of wherever answer in the affirmative, Hearth and Home’s female readership could take to their wheels safe in the knowledge that cycling was a respectable, suitable activity for them to engage in.

Whilst it can be celebrated that most of these answers were of a positive nature, the fact that they were all coming from men, and the emphasis they gave to women cycling in a ‘fashionable’, ‘moderate’ and ‘graceful’ manner, highlights how both the position of women in society, and understandings of appropriately ‘feminine’ behaviours more generally, were very much removed from our own during this period. As the not-so discretely titled ‘Major-General Harcourt Bengough’ put it, ‘by all means ride, but if you cycle, cycle well.’

Finally, if anyone knows of any current school of medical thought which states that, ‘the physical perfection and nervous dexterity of our limbs react favourably on our intellect and moral character’ then I’d love to find out more!

The beginning of the article, and a selection of the responses, are listed below.

Thinking that our readers would like to know the views of people of authority on the all-important question, ‘Should women cycle?’, we sent letters to leading members of the Church, the Medical Profession, the Services, and the House of Commons, asking their opinions. The number of replies we received was very gratifying, while on the whole the verdict was decidedly in favour of the popular pastime.

Mr George Wyndham, M.P., is distinctly an advocate of cycling, when done in moderation, and we commend the sound common sense of his views,

‘You ask my opinion on ‘cycling for women’. I think it is a healthy exercise, and, when mastered, a graceful accomplishment. It is certainly exhilarating, and useful for developing self-reliance and dexterity. If, as some schools of medicine hold, the physical perfection and nervous dexterity of our limbs react favourably on our intellect and moral character, then cycling must have a high educational value.’

George Wyndham

Colonel A.C. Welby, M.P., evidently believes in cycling as a healthy pastime, but is in favour of moderate dress,

‘I am afraid, as a bachelor, I cannot claim views which are likely to be of any interest to others. It seems to me that in country districts, and where women have a long way to their work, cycling is an exercise, or a means of locomotion, both cheap and invigorating. Whether the riding is physically advantageous I must leave to doctors to decide.

When ladies in London parade up and down to look smart and attractive, I often think that if mirrors were arranged alongside, so that they could see the very ungraceful and inelegant position which, especially in wind, cycle-riding entails, they would go straightaway home, and never ride a cycle again for show.’

The Bishop of Bath and Wells is very decidedly in favour of the pursuit with certain restrictions, and,

‘Thinks cycling good for the health, good for the temper, and a good kind of amusement for men, women and children; but its practice by women should not be with a view to racing, nor in unfeminine dress, and never with disregard to the rules of the road.’

George Kennion, Archbishop of Bath and Wells in 1896

Among the opponents of rational dress for cycling is the Dean of Salisbury, who writes:-

‘My views on the subject of ‘cycling for women’ are hardly worth your notice. I cannot say I entirely disapprove of what may be a necessity almost for some who cannot drive or walk, but I think caution as to the effect on health is highly desirable. That ‘cycling’ should be common in large towns I think would be, as indeed has been seen, hardly possible from the fear of accidents. But wherever and whenever practiced I deprecate the possibility of the adaptation of any dress not entirely feminine. It seems to me that we are in danger of a fashion for male attire on the part of ladies, which may injure the true position of women in the world.’

‘Injuring the true position of women in the world’. Source: http://www.fashion-era.com/rational_dress.htm

Major-General Harcourt Bengough, C.B., gives very sound advice,

‘In the early days of cycling I confess I sided with the large majority of men and women who refused to believe that cycling would ever become a popular recreation with English ladies. In its early days it had many difficulties- prejudices if you will- to be overcome. There were difficulties as to becomingness of costume, fears as to the possibility of a graceful deportment on wheels, doubts as to the propriety of riding about unattended, and there were questions as to the effect of cycling on the health.

The pioneers of the movement, too, were not generally those recognised by society as empowered to introduce new fads. A bulging skirt, a crouching and too solid figure, a florid headdress surmounting a spectacled and somewhat over-earnest countenance, these were not traits to attract a huge number of votaries.

‘A spectacled and somewhat over-earnest countenance’. Source: http://wehuntedthemammoth.com/2012/01/04/bicycle-riding-ladies-and-other-threats-to-manly-order/

But all this has happily changed- youth, beauty and fashion have taken cycling by the hand, science and skill have been called in as allies, and the result is a fascinating and health-giving pastime. It is surely a pretty sight, that of a young girl confident in her skill, confident in her costume, floating along with a movement which partakes something of flying, something of skating, erect in her seat as a dragoon, supple as a willow branch. To those who hesitate to follow the fashion, I would say, ‘by all means ride’, but I would add this caution, ‘if you cycle, cycle well’.

Another distinguished military officer considers-

‘That cycling is a very desirable accomplishment for women, so long as not carried to extreme limits. Women often appear to advantage on bicycles, and can sit up gracefully on the saddle; while men on the other hand, most frequently appear at a disadvantage, on account of their stooping too much.

By bicycling, women who have for years been restricted to a neighbourhood of a radius from two to three miles can now extend this area to a radius of eight to ten miles, and have an opportunity of seeing the country when living in town. Bicycling has thus placed poor women on an equal footing with rich ones in a most important particular- getting fresh air and exercise and seeing new scenery. Bicycling will add to a new interest to life, and bring God’s lovely earth to the doors of thousands of women in poor circumstances who would otherwise see nothing but streets and squalor each day.’

To end up with, we give the opinions of that charming writer, Eden Phillpotts, containing as they do sterling common-sense with a sly dash of humour,

‘I approve most heartily of bicycling for anything with a liver, and to deny that the sex shares with us the responsibility and anxieties of that weird organ would be false modesty. Let our maidens ride by all means, and our wives and mothers and grandmothers if they care to risk it. Any women corporeally fitted for the pastime has a right to appear on a bicycle. Those who ought not to ride and do, truly make a judicious spectator sad; but even in the most grotesque cases I blame the relations of the performer rather than the lady herself.

Bicycling has a tendency to keep women out of the shops, which is another subtle advantage. Again, a bicycle is at once far cheaper and healthier than a sealskin jacket. Let man once grasp this great fact, and any remaining paltry prejudices will vanish into limbo.’

Eden Phillpotts, a man who could combine ‘sterling common-sense with a sly dash of humour’. Source: http://www.ebooks-library.com/author.cfm/AuthorID/775

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The Imprisonment of Knees – Victorian Men’s Cycling Attire

For the many middle-class men who took to cycling in the 1890s, before they mounted their bicycles they were faced with a new and troubling dilemma. How should they dress for their cycling excursions? For middle-class male cyclists, retaining a ‘respectable’ and ‘dignified’ appearance on their bicycles was of great importance, and central to this were the clothes they cycled in. ‘Respectable’ attire needed to be ‘tasteful’ and as such could not reveal ‘unseemly’ parts of your anatomy; arms and legs needed to be safely hidden under layers of clothing. However, your Sunday best was not designed for exercise and physical exertion. As one writer in the cycling press put it,

‘When a person becomes transformed from an ordinary citizen to an enthusiastic cyclist, the question of clothing assumes a different aspect. Ignoring the Scriptural admonition, he begins to grow solicitous as to wherewith he shall be clothed. He recognises, as every sensible cyclist must do, that whatever merits or demerits may appertain to ordinary civilian dress, its unsuitability for cycling is axiomatically certain.’

Choosing a cycling outfit was therefore no easy matter. On the one hand it had to make the rider appear ‘respectable’, and dignified. However, it also had to be tailored to the demands of cycling and taking physical exercise. To help middle-class men overcome these difficulties the 1890s saw a rapid growth in the sale and marketing of ‘cycling suits’. As shown in the image above, they maintained a ‘respectable’ appearance by often including a jacket, tie and shirt. At the same time, the outfit was made more cycle friendly by including hoses or stockings, which ensured that a cyclists trousers did not get caught in the chain of their machine, and was made mostly out of wool. Describing the benefits of woollen clothing to a cyclist, one commentator in 1896 described how,

‘It is not enough that his shirt be woollen, every portion of his clothing should all be of the same material. Stiffening’s, linings, pockets all pure wool. It may sound faddy, but it is the secret of comfort. Woollen garments are the coolest in the heat, and the warmest in the cold; a wool-clad cyclist can stand a thorough soaking with impunity, and his clothes will not cling to him with that chilling and deadly embrace of cotton or linen.’

 

For those men who were members of clubs, the difficulties of choosing a cycling outfit were sometimes solved by the club having a prescribed uniform for members. The Anfield Bicycle Club’s annual report stated that,

‘The uniform shall be a black patrol jackets, knickerbockers and hose, with black cricket cap and a blue and black scarf.’

Such outfits would certainly have appeared ‘respectable’. However, it’s practicality for engaging in the long distance races frequently organised by the club, was questionable. In 1894 the club dropped the rule requiring all members to be attired in this uniform, and instead asked them to dress in the clubs colours of blue and black.

Moreover, however breathable wool is, an outfit consisting of trousers, a jacket, scarf and cap would clearly not be the most practical attire for long distance cycle rides. Not only would its weight make cycling more arduous, but the number of layers combined with trousers would also have made it very difficult to stay cool whilst cycling.

Modelling a cycling sweater (and a might fine moustache). Source: http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/1900s/fashion-costumes/mens-cycling-costume/

 

This meant that some cyclists who cycled competitively and engaging in scorching took to wearing lighter, more comfortable outfits. However, this of course meant they pushed the boundaries of ‘respectability’. Writing in 1897 one commentator described how the young man who took up cycling might,

‘Develop into that terrible creature the ‘scorcher’, who, absolutely unmindful of the beauties of the scenery through which he passes neglects, in his one idea of pace, the clothes and customs of a respectable individual’.

The writer, Gilbert Floyd, went onto describe how,

‘He will affect strange garments, sad as to colour, and roomy in cut, whilst his shoes must be stamped from one piece of leather to meet his depraved taste for simplicity and lightness. His only adornments will be his club badge and the silk handkerchief, in which are embodied his club colours, which he wraps loosely round his neck, leaving the ends to flutter pennon-like in the breeze, as he urges his wild career, on space-devouring thoughts intent.’

In 1895 Cycling made similar complaints against men competing in cycling races, who would,

‘Not only race in the most scanty attire, bare arms, almost bare legs, the short breaches at no time reaching the knee, being frequently pulled up until they are almost like bathing drawers, and with the rest of the costume so light and tight that it only serves to accentuate their form, and so loosely fitted that the rider finishes as often as not with bare loins, but they stroll about in front of the grand-stand, and elsewhere, in this barbarous guise, sometimes, as we ourselves have heard, calling forth shouts of coarse chaff from the rougher portion of the crowd, to the embarrassment of the refined.’

Preparing to race in the ‘most scanty attire’. Source: http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/1900s/cycle-racing/1890s-racing-scrapbook-usa/

 

To fix this state of affairs Cycling argued that men dressed in such a manner should not allowed to compete in cycling races, stating that,

‘It is not matter of prudery, but the supporting of the unwritten, but universally observed, law of civilised society, as well as obeying the dictates of gentlemanly instinct, that men should not be allowed to appear on the race path, to race and stroll about before refined women, in a state of semi-nudity.’

It was not only male cyclists who felt the pressures to dress ‘respectably’ however ill-suited the outfits were for the activities they were engaging in . In June 1896 William MacDonald, a forty-four year old accountant living in London briefly became a media sensation, when he walked around Regent’s Park dressed in,

‘A blue serge short-sleeved tunic, a pair of sandals, and, it was said a pair of knickerbockers, but the last named could not be seen, although the skirt of the tunic was by no means long.’

The consequences of him wearing this outfit? He was taken into custody, after a police constable found him addressing a crowd of some 500 people in Regent’s Park. The Illustrated Police News described how at the court hearing Mr MacDonald defended himself by stating that,

‘He was not responsible for the crowd assembling. It was his practice to go out wearing different costumes, suitable to the time of year and the weather, and he usually went to Regent’s Park every day…Personal reformers in the matters of dress were necessary, in order to break down old conventionalities and have dress worn consistent with the weather and common sense.’

All very reasonable, and after the hearing Mr MacDonald was discharged. However, this was only agreeing to the magistrate’s demands that,

‘If you promise not again to appear in this ridiculous dress, which can only attract attention and possibly lead to a breach of the peace, I will discharge you; if not, I will remand you in custody for a week.’

There is undoubtedly a hugely important story to tell about how women cycling in rational dress challenged gender norms and paved the way for later generations of women to dress in more practical, comfortable clothing. It is hard to place the case of William MacDonald on quite the same level; it appears that his efforts to challenge ‘old conventionalities’ ended after the court hearing, with it being reported how,

‘The magistrate then discharged Mr MacDonald, who, amid laughter, hurriedly made his way out of the court and up the road.’

However, when we men in modern Western societies feel free to dress in shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops on hot summer days, or wear cycle in clothes far more practical than the ones shown in the adverts above, we should perhaps spare a thought for men such as William MacDonald, who suffered at the hands of iron bound laws of custom. As he himself asked,

‘What could be more pleasant in the hot summer than feeling the breeze playing on one’s knees, so to speak?’