Daring & Dedicated: My 1896 Cycling Ensemble

I’ve been hinting at the 1896 Cycling Ensemble I’ve been working on since December, first by sharing the black gaiters I made as part of the ensemble, then by sharing my deliberation and eventual decision to take a shortcut with two of the other accessories for the ensemble, and most recently by sharing photos of the shortcut accessories: a dickie and bow tie. Now it’s time for the reveal of the finished outfit in its entirety!

My inspiration for creating this ensemble is a talk I’ve been invited to give at both the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Newport Historical Society. The talk, titled Undressing History: Active Pursuits, Women’s Sportswear c.1900, will take a look at the clothing women wore to participate in sports and athletic activities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’ll be actively dressing in multiple of my sportswear ensembles from 1885 to 1925, including clothing that could be worn for tennis, ice skating, bicycling, croquet, and swimming. I’ll discuss the cultural context of women’s participation in athletic activities during this time as well as the garments themselves: how they functioned while being worn for active pursuits, what they were made from, and how the silhouettes compared to non-sports clothing. I’ll be presenting this talk twice: on February 28 in Providence, RI and on March 28 in Newport, RI. If you’re interested in joining me, you can find more details about the event here.

As you might have noticed from my links to other sportswear ensembles I already own, I was missing a cycling ensemble. Bicycling became hugely popular for women in the 1890s, with a peak in 1896, so I felt that I must include this form of sportswear in my talk. And while I could use my 1895 skating ensemble as an example of the silhouette that would have been worn for bicycling while wearing a skirt, I felt it would be fun to show what the more daring and dedicated sportswomen of the 1890s wore: a bloomer suit. Full they might be, but those are pants!

Daring and dedicated, that’s me in this outfit. Most women in the 1890s stuck to the traditional, socially acceptable silhouette of an ankle length skirt for bicycling, but this could be dangerous as the skirt could become entangled in the spokes and chain while riding. Solutions to this problem included adaptations to the bicycle, such as a ‘skirt guard’ that sat over the rear wheel and kept the skirt from entangling itself, and adaptations to the clothing, including skirts with cords that could allow them to be raised while riding and skirts that were one piece in the front but split into legs in the back, as with a modern ‘skort’ (a skirt/short combination garment).

While that is amusing, I thought it would be more fun to make the most socially daring option: fully bifurcated bloomers. Some women wore these under a skirt while riding in order to maintain modesty. And some women, daring in terms of breaking the social conventions of the time and dedicated in terms of taking advantage of the newfound freedom a bicycle afforded, wore skirts that they would remove while riding, with bifurcated bloomers such as mine underneath.

Interestingly, a fashionable, tailor-made wool jacket like this could cost as much as $50 in 1896. Calculated in today’s dollars, that would be over $1,000. Quite a sum, and that doesn’t even include the bloomers or accessories! For those who had less disposable income, a linen suit provided a more economical option. With cheaper fabric, a dressmaker instead of a tailor, and patterns shared amongst customers, a full linen suit could be obtained for $7. That’s down to just about $150 in today’s dollars.

I have lots of construction details to share from making the bloomers and jacket, so there will be a detailed post focused on that soon. For now, here are a few close up photos of details, including my hidden pocket!

It was an exciting adventure to get photos of this outfit. In order to get timely photos I had to take the outdoors as I found it, snow and all. I valiantly tromped around, but I’ll admit that my feet were getting pretty wet and cold by the time we were done! Here’s a behind-the-scenes action shot on the way to getting the more finished photos–following my photographer’s path in the snow in a rather futile effort to keep the snow out of my shoes.

Sometime in the spring, perhaps, I’ll be able to ride a bike in my ensemble and get photos that give more context. In the meantime, we got some lovely winter-y photos and had some good laughs! Thanks to my intrepid photographer for making the time to take photos!

 

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12 thoughts on “Daring & Dedicated: My 1896 Cycling Ensemble

  1. Both the outfit and photos are beautiful! You look all that more sporty in the snow! I can’t wait to see and hear the rest of the story… –Erik in Ohio

  2. The bicycling ensemble is gorgeous! I love all of the detailed stitching. How interesting that girls would spend that much on “athletic wear” — but I guess we gave up quite a bit of money on basketball shoes and other gear when our girls were playing! If we lived closer, I’d be sure to come to hear your presentation.

  3. You have put a lot of work into that outfit. Early women cyclists must have found life difficult before common sense prevailed and a suitable outfit developed

    1. Yes, I think you’re right that bicycling would have been difficult when women first started participating in it. On the other hand, think of the freedom to explore beyond where walking could carry them. That part is exciting! Fashion taking precedence over common sense is a phenomenon that still takes place in some ways, I think! Thank you for the compliment!

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