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.”


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:

What I see most and what I would most like to see…

… this is the question they are asking on the Antiques Road Show (UK edition) this season.

Without a doubt what I see offered the most as donations to the Fashion History Museum are Christening gowns. Beautifully made and saved for posterity, Christening gowns must have a near 100% survival rate. Christening gowns don’t respond to fashion as noticeably as wedding gowns, which also survive in large numbers, and they have the added advantage of usually being adjustable with ties in the back to fit any sized baby.

So far I have accepted only one Christening gown into the collection of the Fashion History Museum, however it is an ornate example, it was also worn in Canada and is positively identified as having been made and used in 1884 and again in 1921 for the daughter of the original wearer.

When it comes to what I would most like to see, I could hope to find some lost garments from history, like a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I, but instead I have chosen something which I know does exist, but rarely – a bloomer-trouser bicycling suit from the 1890s. I bid on one at an auction in New York about fifteen years ago but ended up the underbidder, and I do know where there is a spectacular corduroy one in a private collection, but I don’t know of any others in collections, private or public, although there must be many in existance.

The bicycling suit was based on the bloomer costume, introduced as an emancipated dress for women in the 1840s. The outfit (shown at right) consisted of harem trousers worn under a short skirt and was named for Amelia Bloomer, an American advocate for women’s rights and temperance. The costume was worn by modern-thinking women, usually in the privacy of their own homes. If you want to see what they looked like in action – there are some wonderful recreated 1860s and 1870s bloomer costumes depicted in the film Oscar and Lucinda.  Bloomer costumes were adopted for sportswear – gymastic exercise outfits and bathing suits; many examples of these have survived and are often mistaken for cycling costumes.

Le Chalet du Cycle by Jean Beraud, c. 1897

Fashion borrowed the bloomer costume and translated it into a tailored outfit for bicycle riding in the 1890s. The vast majority of women who cycled wore suits with shorter skirts and tall, laced boots but only the most daring adopted the bloomer trouser-style tailored suit. Conservative tastes saw the style as a gateway to sin and laws prohibiting women from appearing in trousers in public were enacted in many places around the world.