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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Victorian Bicycling and A Liberating Petticoat.

Bicycle advertisement from The Ladies Home Journal January 1897.
 Scan by Toile La La.

During the Victorian era, bicycles were representative of women's liberation and were considered a safe mode of transportation. By 1895, one Annie Londonderry had seen the world on her bicycle. In 1896, women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony said: "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."  Rallying other women toward activism, President of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, Frances Willard drew upon her cycling experiences to announce:  "The world is wide and I will not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum."

The 1885 safety bicycle was notably user-friendly for both women and men (unlike its predecessor, the "penny-farthing"). A Dr. C.W. Cunnington noted that the bicycle had 'converted the lady into a biped and supplied her with a momentum which carried her headlong into the next century'. I think in referring to the lady becoming "a biped" he may have been observing the slowly-evolving move toward bloomers, divided skirts, and knickerbockers worn for cycling. (reference Elizabeth Ewing, Dress and Undress: A History of Women's Underwear, Drama Book Specialists, 1978, p.103)

In 1897, the year of the above ad, two million bicycles were sold in America. But by 
1910 in the U.S., automobiles began to replace the bicycle in popularity.
To read more about the cycling exhilaration of liberated women, see these links:  http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5038/  about activist Frances Willard - and for athlete Annie Londonderry see http://www.annielondonderry.com/index.html .
"A Joy to the Bunchy Woman": The Novent Petticoat  (from The Christian Herald  Sept. 1906).
Scan by Toile La La.
The new woman of the twentieth century desired not only to be heard and to have freedom in living, but also to have freedom from restrictive garments. Described as "A Joy to the Bunchy Woman", the Novent Petticoat allowed freedom of movement - with flexible, lightweight jersey covering the hips and legs: "No vents, buttons, tapes, hooks and eyes, wrinkles or folds". Perhaps the Novent copywriters were envisioning the many years of confinement and inactivity so many homemakers had endured...which led to a "bunchy" figure.    

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a notable American sociologist, writer and lecturer of these times described the liberated woman: "Here she comes, running, out of prison and off the pedestal; chains off, crown off, halo off, just a live woman."
Calixte 1900 doll, 1949 Gift of Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne to Brooklyn Museum. Image from High Style, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010, p.225.