Original Photo by Ken Russell
If I were to tell you that the bicycles helped women win their rights, would you believe me? Everyone can see the effect that the cycling craze is having on society today, but you may be interested to learn about the effect of the first bicycle craze on women and their equality.
When the first bicycle fad hit in the later part of the 1800's, women's fashion was that of the Victorian era. It included things like whale bone corsets, hoop skirts, horse hair and so on. The shear weight and bulk of the clothing of this era limited mobility, posing a serious disadvantage to women and tying in nicely to the gender biases of the time. Not so practical.
Bicycles changed a lot during that century but all delivered on the promise of increased mobility at an accessible cost to people all over the world. Most people anyways. Unfortunately, for women, it was physically impossible to ride a bike while wearing a hoop skirt. Remember, at the time women where not allowed to vote and were generally considered to be second class citizens, so getting them on bikes was not a priority for the status quo. It clearly wasn't on the mind of the bicycle inventors either.
Luckily, the women's liberation movement was getting started around the same time and had spawned the "rational dress movement" in an attempt to get women wearing more practical clothing. Generally, women were not not permitted to wear pants, but because they were necessary for riding a bicycle, it was an easier sell on society. Getting women on bikes meant physical freedom for the ladies so the first step was for fashion to evolve into something more practical. Jumping straight to mens trousers would be too much of a shock to the system, so the Bloomer served as an intermediate step as they're basically extra baggy pants disguised as a skirt. It made sense. They where significantly lighter than a hoop skirt, easier to put on and less time on laundry means more time out and about! Best of all they didn't look like trousers so it didn't challenge social norms too much.
As you can imagine, women wearing pants and being mobile was not welcomed by all. Many suggested that it was immoral. The medical profession for one, made it clear that women should not ride bikes as it would results in infertility, cause orgasms and "bicycle face" (facial disfigurement from the strain of riding). As more and more women took up cycling and rational dress it began to be normalized, as did challenging gender roles and expanding our views.
Adopting a more practical form of attire had an immeasurably great affect on the mobility and freedom of women. They where suddenly able to get exercise, be more healthy and travel independent of a male driver.
Eventually, the cycling industry responded with the introduction of the step through frame which is still used by some women today to ride with shorter skirts but it's wasn't until the early 21st century that women began to wear proper trousers. I'm glad that women have both options available to them now. Maybe it's time I tried biking in a skirt......