Friday, December 16, 2022

How Bicycles Influenced 1890s Fashions by Zina Abbott












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 clothing.


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, t
oward 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

However, Western 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 ready-to-wear market.


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.

1895 Bicycle Suit
Text on image:

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.




















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