Women’s cycling fashion from the 1870s onwards

Women’s cycling fashion from the 1870s onwards

To mark our 140th birthday Cycling UK's historian Sheila Hanlon shares how women’s battle for the bike also became a fight about fashion and societal values.

Cycle clothing throughout the last century has not only rapidly changed, but it evolved alongside the technological developments of the bicycle. The fluctuating attitude of society towards the bicycle manifested itself in the cycling fashion too.

In 1878 when Cycling UK (first known as the Bicycle Touring Club, then CTC from 1883) was first formed, tricycles, high-wheelers or penny farthings were the bikes of the era and they were mostly ridden by men. The “customary attire for male cyclists was a militarised jacket, tight knee-breeches, and a cap or pith helmets”, a formal style that represented the advanced economic status of those who rode.

High-wheelers or penny farthings didn’t match up to the dress or behavioural expectations of the day for women, and mounting the bike in a dress was difficult and dangerous. However, there were cases of women of the time who defied convention and wore breeches and gymnastic costumes so they could experience riding a bike. 

In 1874 a British manufacturer even developed a new ‘high-wheeler’ bike that would conform to women’s dress standards, which looked very much like side saddle and created the saddle much higher to accommodate the dress. 

Tricycles were different however and were considered a respectable form of activity for upper-class women of the day. Mrs Telford was the first woman to be elected by Cycling UK (the known as CTC) in 1880. She is depicted on the players cigarette card riding a Salvo Sociable.

Jeanie Welford

Cycling clothing grew in popularity during the 1880s to allow for ‘decorum’ as well as freedom of movement. 

Cycling UK's first ever female member Mrs Telford conformed to the new design, she is featured in the cigarette image above. She wore 'an underdress, slim and pleated in two alternating pink printed fabrics in this case, and a pink ruched overskirt falling just below knee level. Telford’s jacket is Cycling UK's uniform, green and cut long for coverage while riding.' 

During the 1890’s cycling fashion really took off as did the new ‘cycling craze’. There were impressive new inventions during this era, from skirts that could be unbuttoned at the back to the more extreme ‘convertible skirts.’

There was also a more radical solution to the ‘dress problem' and the fight for rational dress. One of Cycling UK’s first campaigns was the battle for rational dress. In 1898 Lady Harberton was refused service at the Hautboy Hotel in Ockham for wearing rational dress (baggy knickerbockers and a jacket) rather than the ankle length skirt.  

The charity took the hotel to court but lost, a decision made by an all-male jury. But the story had made major headlines and paved the way for the advancement of women's cycling. Interestingly, and rather fittingly, Lady Harburton now lends her name to a French brand of female urban cyclist gear!

Today the charity still supports comfortable clothes for cycling whoever you are - if you look at the Cycling UK shop you can see our range of tops.

Dr. Sheila Hanlon is Cycling UK's historian; she will be exploring our rich cycling past and present in an ongoing series within the history section of Cycling UK's website. 


Bicycle Fashion Files Part One: Early Inventions 1790-1860s
Bicycle Fashion Files Part Two: Tricycles and Highwheelers, 1870-1880s
Bicycle Fashion Files Part Three: The 1890s Craze

You can find history highlights on the Cycling UK History Timeline.  

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