The 1890’s were known as the “Gay Nineties” for more than
one reason. One was the direction taken in women’s fashions that allowed them greater
freedom of movement. As the new decade approached, the stiffness and fussiness
typical of the Victorian Era eased. Much of this was due to the technologies
that developed, as well as women’s involvement in those technologies.
|1895 Women on bicycles- Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ashton Collection|
Perhaps the innovation that had the greatest influence on
the change in women’s fashions was the drop-frame safety bicycle. The 1890s
became an era of great dress reforms which allowed women the opportunity to
ride bicycles more comfortably, and therefore, created the need for appropriate
Keep in mind, in the
late 1860s, after the end of the Civil War, fabric was in shorter supply, so
the hoop skirts wider than the Mississippi River became narrower, with a slight
protrusion in back. That protrusion developed into the bustle, which, by the
mid-1880s, often stuck out on a woman's rear like a small mountain. All during this, the ladies
were contained in a stiff corset that squeezed their inner organs and often
prevented breathing easily. It definitely restricted movement.
|Big-wheeler bicycles 1887|
Although horses and horse-driven conveyances still dominated in the more rustic West, toward the end of the
1880s, bicycles and—for the ladies with their more restrictive clothing—tricycles became available.
These were probably seen more in the East and possibly the around the larger
cities (read: roads that weren’t a dust bowl in the summer and a muddy swamp in
the rainy season) in the West.
|Photographer unknown. Staff of the Mechanics Institute
Reference Library, 1895. Photograph. Toronto: Toronto Public Library|
society in Europe and North America began to move away from the stiff,
moralistic, Victorian Era. Women were enjoying new levels of independence as
opposed to the Victorian Era (and back through time) belief that they should
restrict their interests and activities to those involved in being a homemaker.
During the decade, the number of women employed outside of the home almost
doubled. The “New Woman” was an intellectual, young female.
|1898 Women in bathing costumes--ooh! Look at those bare legs!|
As more and more
began working outside the home, they began to pursue interests in cycling and
participating in sports (as opposed to always being the admiring audience to
the wonderfulness of men’s sporting activities).
|1895-1900 students Atlanta Univ. George|
In order to do this effectively, women needed clothing that
was less restrictive. The
introduction of electricity in clothing manufacturing produced a boon in the
Less restrictive it did become, as heavily boned corsets so
stiff and tightly laced they were strapless gave way to straight front corsets,
also known as health corsets, athletic corsets, hygienic corsets, and sanitary
corsets. They did not have the heavy boning, but were buttoned in the front and
held in place with shoulder straps.
|1896 Charvet Avertisement|
Dresses focused more on mobility, with free-flowing skirts
and leg-o-mutton sleeves. The “mutton sleeve”—the vertical puff at the
shoulders—developed to allow greater freedom of movement in the arms. This
style reached its peak in 1895. By the end
of the century, it gradually diminished.
Skirts were bell-shaped, gored to fit smoothly over the hips.
Gone were the multitude of heavy petticoats. This allowed for more
self-expression and a more natural silhouette for women’s bodies.
These skirts also allowed for greater mobility. They made it
possible for women to ride the drop-frame safety bicycle instead of being
restricted to the tricycle of the previous decade.
Along with the floor-length that used for everyday wear, to
appeal to the athletic woman, a “walking skirt”—a skirt that fell to just above
the ankles—also came into style. For younger girls, the walking skirt fell to
just below the knees.
On occasion, such as bicycle riding, women set their skirts
aside and wore what were formerly referred to as bloomers. This was a bold
move, and it was not universally approved due to the controversy surrounding
women wearing pants.
Text on image:
|1895 Bicycle Suit|
Gertrude. "My dear Jessie, what on earth is that bicycle suit for!"
Jessie. "Why, to wear, of course."
Gertrude. "But you haven't got a bicycle!"
Jessie. "No, but I've got a sewing machine!"
In this era, they were also known as "rationals"
or "knickerbockers." The entire outfit, including the jacket, was
known as a “bicycle suit.”
So, hail, hail to the 1890s new woman with her greater freedom of
movement, her greater selection of choices, and her greater health—all largely made
possible by the adaptions made in clothing styles so she could more comfortably ride the humble drop-frame safety bicycle.
One of my two 2022 romances set in the 1890s was Joshua's Bride, set during the 1893 Cherokee Land Run. Although neither Rose Calloway nor her sister, Marigold, wore bicycle suits or rode bicycles during the land run, there were those who did. The sisters, who rode the train to where they wished to claim land, wore walking skirts.
To find the book description and purchase options for Joshua's Bride,
please CLICK HERE.
Marigold Calloway has her romance in 1894 after she is already on the two city residential lots she claimed during the land run. Having spent her life as a schoolteacher, she definitely fits the description of the modern woman who works outside the home. The streamline skirts and looser clothing of the era suit her just fine.
To find the book description and purchase options for Marigold,
please CLICK HERE.