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:


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:


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?’