The 1890s Bicycle Bloomer Brouhaha

Le Chalet du Cycle Jean Beraud

Le Chalet du Cycle, c. 1896, Jean Beraud

With a better understanding of the connection between exercise and health, many middle and upper class women took up sports activities during the 19th century including lawn games like badminton, croquet and tennis, as well as calisthenics and sea bathing. In the 1890s, bicycling became the latest obsession, but bicycling was done on the street and not everyone accepted the new activity, especially when female cyclists wore pants.

In 1851, American Amelia Bloomer published an article in her newspaper The Lily calling for dress reform. She, and her group of supporters adopted calf-length skirts over full cut ‘Turkish trousers’. The style received some acceptance and lots of ridicule – and the full-cut trousers became known as ‘bloomers’. Although the style did not succeed as a mainstream fashion it was retained for sporting activities such as bathing costumes and exercise outfits – and, in the 1890s, for cycling.

us567979-2Lady Florence Harberton, president of the Rational Dress Society, which she had co-founded in London in 1881, became a keen cyclist and advocated the adoption of divided skirts, or bloomer costumes for the activity. However, in October 1898 Lady Harberton was refused service at the Hautboy Hotel by the owner, Mrs Martha Sprague, because she was wearing her Bloomer cycling costume. There had been an agreement with Lady Harberton’s Cyclists’ Touring Club to be served in the coffee-room, but Mrs. Sprague denied her entry, insisting she go the bar, where working men smoked and drank. Lady Harberton brought action against Mrs Sprague in April 1899 on the grounds that she was obliged by law to honour the agreement between the cycling club and hotel and not discriminate by not offering service to anyone based on their dress. In her defense, Mrs Sprague insisted she had not refused Lady Harberton service, only directed her to another room because she had not allowed women without skirts into the coffee-room. The judge ordered the jury to address the issue of service, not dress, and after a short deliberation, the jury found in favour of Mrs. Sprague.

Canada too was caught up in the controversy. An account from the book Bicycle: The History cites a case in 1895, Victoria, British Columbia, where it had been declared by the police that “bloomers are not suitable for ladies’ street wear, even when worn as a bicycling costume”. Ethel Delmont, nonetheless, wore her bloomers for a ride about town, and received a warning from the police that “a repetition of her appearance in that costume would mean a court summons.”

1895_Columbia_paper_Dolls_01

Paper dolls depicting various Cycling costumes, 1895

The looking glass was the harshest critic for many women who saw Bloomer costumes as ugly, ungraceful and too masculine. Mrs. Reginald de Koven wrote in an August 1895 article ‘Bicycling for Women’, in The Cosmopolitan magazine: “The question of the proper dress for bicycling is still in doubt. In smaller cities like Cleveland, Buffalo, and notably in Chicago and Boston, the bloomer costume has been largely used. This tendency must be deprecated.” Mrs de Koven advocated a shorter skirt be worn over knickerbockers (closer fitting than bloomers) to avoid the “enormous loss of the gracefulness which every woman should religiously consider.”

The debate on how to successfully combine functionality, femininity, and respectability even included bicycle manufacturers. In 1895 the Pope Manufacturing Company, makers of the Columbia brand of bicycles, issued paper dolls through the Delineator magazine, publisher of dress patterns, that portrayed various costumes suitable for cycling, including bloomers and skirts.

In 1897 F. J. Erskine, English author of Lady Cycling: What to Wear & How to Ride, advocated the environment dictated what was suitable attire. A skirt might be more appropriate for a dry summer day in town, but knickerbockers were essential for a long tour in the countryside. The Brouhaha was dying down in 1900 by which time Most female cyclists had adopted calf length boots and paired them with shorter ankle-to-calf length (sometimes divided) skirts.

One of the six cycling costume paper dolls suggested by Pope Manufacturing with patterns available from Delineator, 1895:

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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