As we near the end of Women's History Month, let's have a look at the women who have designed clothes to make it easier for women to comfortably and safely use their bicycle for exercise and for transportation. That was actually quite a controversial topic at one time! We love how their inventiveness continues to inspire designers today, sometimes quite directly, as you'll read below.
Ms. Bloomer first wrote about the garment in 1851 in her "The Lily" newspaper, the first U.S. newspaper edited by and for women, sharing a description of her own dress along with instructions on how to make it. With that a "bloomer craze" was born, with women donning bloomers at society events that year.
But like all crazes, the bloomers eventually went out of fashion and Amelia Bloomer herself stopped wearing them by 1857. It wasn't until after her death that bloomers resurfaced as bicycle dress since there "must be no trailing garments to get entangled in the cycle cog wheels." (source).
Bloomer's legacy can still be seen today, if nowhere else than the line of Bikie Girl Bloomers, created by Karen Canady.
Lady Harberton and the Rational Dress Society
Desire to reform Victorian dress was felt elsewhere in the world. In 1881 the Rational Dress Society was founded in London with a similar goal to promote garments that were more comfortable and allowed for greater movement.
The Society’s president and co-founder, Lady Florence Harberton, was herself a cyclist and promoted exercise for women. She recommended wearing a divided skirt under a long coat.
Regretfully, Lady Harberton's solution never caught on. Women's "Cycling dress" was considered to be quite controversial, for while there were rational arguments for why it ought to exist, it was also seen as unwomanly and distasteful. The women who wore it were often ridiculed or asked to change their clothes or cover up.
Lady Harberton's legacy is honored today in the line of cycling accessories that have taken her name. The Lady Harberton brand, designed by Lucile Hamoignon, has a mission of highlighting active women who love to ride by bike. From one bike bag brand to another, we're huge fans of what she's doing!
Claire McCardell (1905-1958)
After the two World Wars, in which many American women took over the jobs of men fighting overseas, the perception of what women were able and ought to do (and how they ought to dress) changed somewhat and there was less resistance to clothing that made movement possible and more comfortable.
Enter into this scene fashion designer Claire McCardell, who is often credited with founding American read-to-wear fashion and leisurewear. McCardell's design philosophy was that clothes should be practical and comfortable, yet feminine, believing that essentially clothes must be functional (source). In the early 1940's, McCardell introduced the Popover, an unstructured, utilitarian denim dress, as well as the cycling costume you see above.
From the 1960's onward, American fashion became decidedly more casual. Mary Tyler Moore was wearing capris on TV and it was understood that women could wear clothing that let them do what they needed to do all day more comfortably. "Women don't wear full-skirted dresses to vacuum in," she famously said.
Since then, we have seen much development in technical fabrics to create clothing that wicks, insulates, reflects light, and that is lightweight, waterproof, and breathable. Most of the fabrics have been used in performance activewear and outdoor wear. But, in recent years, we've been seeing designers including them in what we'll call "Women's Modern Cycling Dress".
Kit & Ace
Kit & Ace builds technical apparel for the modern commuter – the people who value the functional details of cycling gear and the technical properties of athletic wear. Their benchmark is the bike – if it functions on two wheels, it functions anywhere. That's our test too!
Ministry of Supply
Ministry of Supply reportedly spent two years of testing to get its women's collection right, but now they have a full line of engineered dress clothes for women. Check out their Women's Commuter line for stretch woven, antimicrobial, moisture wicking, wrinkle resistant clothing that, yes, you can bike to work in. View the whole collection.
Debbie Baer is the designer behind The Willary brand, making a wardrobe that works for you and with you, no matter what your day brings. Suit up in the morning and tackle your day with confidence, style and ease. Our founder Maria is a huge fan of their clothes! Shop the line here.
Vespertine founder and designer Sarah Canner had a vision of safety wear as beautiful, stylish clothes you want to wear everywhere that would empower other cyclists to take their daily adventures in stylish safety and created VESPERTINE Haute Réflecture. Shop her line here.
The Road Ahead
In researching this article, I came across a blog post titled "Women on the Move: Cycling and the Rational Dress Movement". It was very informative, but most enjoyable were all the photos of women biking throughout the ages. In particular, this photo of Eileen Sheridan caught my attention:
Her expression is a mix of joy and determination and really resonated with me because I thought to myself, "I know that feeling". Naturally I wanted to learn more about her and thanks to a reader of this blog, I learned that she is the Hercules Professional, Record Breaking Eileen Sheridan.
When I first published this post, I mistook Eileen Sheridan for Eileen Gray, who founded the Women's Cycling Racing Association. Her obituary in the Telegraph was fascinating, but I was most smitten by this passage:
"[My first bicycle] was the one thing that changed me from that shy young woman into the confident person that I became… It sort of opened that way for me I suppose.”
She loved being out and about on her bike: “It was the freedom! I could go places and see things that I would never have seen if I’d stayed home, and I was my own boss.”
I bet a lot of us can relate to that!
Did we leave any designers or fashion movements out? Let us know your favorites in the comments below!
Note: This blog post was originally posted on March 22, 2017. We updated some portions of it and have reposted it because we believe it is still relevant!