When the second bicycle craze hit in the 1890s, so too did the controversy over what footwear was right for bicycling. A transformation was taking place in the feminine bicycle boot, with extremes going from one to the other. “Mannish young women” had become all the rage and their choice of bicycle boots created a juxtaposition against low shoe or the Parisian bicycler with her French heel, “suggestive of tight corsets, over elaborate coiffures…and befrilled gowns.” When women first took to wheeling, “instructors in the academies advised them to ride in high boots with heavy soles and low heels,” but after doing so, many women found such boots uncomfortable and some looked for a shoe instead. Experience soon taught feminine bicyclers that women’s legs came in all sorts, shapes, and sizes and what might be viewed as beautiful or practical on one woman’s foot was anything but beautiful or practical on another.
French women thought their boot was the best and claimed they had it all figured out. They noted:
The most fashionable bicycle boot is now made with a French heel—just like the slipper of a French court beauty. The girls who ride a wheel have been determined from the start that their leg and foot should look attractive, and the French heel is the outcome of much persistent effort on their part. The newest bicycle boot is three-quarter length. It is made of the softest kid, frequently patent leather trimmed, and has a high, pert little heel. It can be bought in many designs, plain or elaborate, but always the high is there if the latest model is selected.
Germans thought the answer to the perfect boot was the bicycle boot they created for women. It was a boot they maintained that was for the “average bicyclist.” An example of their vision is shown on the left. Although it was short in height, it also embraced the French heel and unlike the more rounded toes of the French boot, it ended in a pinching fine point at the toe. The German version was also created from two kinds of kid leather, “glazed kid and mat surface, both of the same color: the combination setting off the fanciful cut of the upper,” with the “deep goring” matching the leather.
For some people, neither the French or German versions were sufficient and declared there was no perfect boot as all boots had “not one redeeming feature.” These wheelers cared more about comfortable and practicality than beauty. They argued against high boots in general and claimed they detested them because they were “uncomfortable” and “horrid.” Those that hated high boots insisted that if they were “laced tight enough to give the ankle and calf a trim appearance, they interfere[d] with any easy ankle motion and stop[ped] the circulation.” There were also complaints that high boots should be worn only during inclement weather as boots were so hot and uncomfortable during most seasons, but particularly in the summer, “riding [was] anything but a pleasure.”
Some people also asserted that just as women’s legs and feet came in all different shapes and sizes, so too did women’s likes and dislikes. They argued that bicycle footwear should be based on a bicyclist’s preference, which meant bicyclists did not just need to wear boots, they could also wear low shoes. Nineteenth century feminine wheelers who liked high boots and purchased them regularly were said to be “the very stout and the very angular.” They claimed when wheeling about the countryside high boots held “the flesh firmly in place and [kept] it from jouncing up and down [unlike]…a thin lisle thread or silk stocking.” The women who preferred the thin stocking and low shoe asserted something entirely different. They claimed “the only comfortable footgear for the pedal pusher [was] a thin stocking and low shoe…[as] no work whatever is done with the foot. It merely rests on the pedal and the ankle does the rest.”
- Boot and Shoe Recorder, Vol. 33, 1898