Bicycling was a popular pastime in the late 1800s and that resulted in Victorian bicycle fashions for the fall of 1898. Just like there had been a craze for chocolate during the time of Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe, a “bicycle craze” was ushered in throughout Europe and North American by the 1890s. The original bicycling problems related to the penny-farthing — comfort, safety, speed, and steering — were essentially resolved by the late 1800s and that allowed for the creation of suitable bicycle for ordinary female riders. Because of this, the bicycle soon went from an everyday fad to a hobby and thousands of women began riding the bicycle and needed fashions to wear while doing so.
Edward Sandford Martin, founder of The Harvard Lampoon and literary editor of Life magazine, noted the bicycle’s popularity among Victorian women. He maintained women had claimed it and marked it as their own, which encouraged even more women to join in the bicycle craze and caused the bicycle to reach its pinnacle in 1900 when 1.4 billion bicycles were in use worldwide. Martin was also perhaps the most vocal about the bicycle and its fashion effects when he stated:
“The most startling tendency of the bicycle is its effect upon woman. As sure as taxes, or the destruction of the peach, or anything that is inevitable, it is about to emancipate that suffering creature from the dominion of skirts … no woman can ride on bicycle without discovering that skirts have their place and their uses, and that there are times and situation where they are in the way.”
Although Martin was right about skirts getting in the way, some fashion magazines continued to promote the bicycling toilette that consisted of a jacket or blazer, basque or waist, and skirt, along with gloves and hats or caps. Fashion also dictated that the chic and stylish woman could not fully appreciate her bicycling experience if she was not “properly and becomingly gowned.” So, the well-bred women spent hours planning her Victorian bicycle fashions.
Women ensured that their Victorian bicycle fashions were finely tailored, and they relied “upon neat, simple lines and … colors.” Women also purchased bicycling costumes or created them in a variety of serviceable fabrics, such as cheviot, homespun, and meltonette. Trimmings for bicycle outfits were simple too as “braid and buttons, and in some instances velvet or silk were inlaid in the collar and cuffs.” Moreover, female wheelers wanted their toilettes “to look equally well whether the wearer walk[ed] or [was] mounted.” Women’s bicycling footwear was important and it was suggested (although not everyone agreed) that low shoes or boots were “preferable to the high boots, since they afford[ed] greater freedom to the ankle.”
Victorian bicycle fashions for the fall of 1898 allowed the female rider a variety of choices. For instance, jackets included blazers that were often belted and had short fly-front jackets. Moreover, two of the more popular jackets were the Eton and the Norfolk. The Eton was a waist-length jacket with wide lapels that was cut square at the hips, and the Norfolk, a loose, belted, single-breasted jacket with box pleats. Sometimes waists or basques were worn and occasionally women wore vests. Skirts were generally short — about seven or eight inches shorter than the ordinary walking skirt — and frequently gored.
Bicycling accessories included dogskin or kidskin gloves, gaiters (a garment similar to leggings, worn to cover and protect the ankle and lower leg), and a variety of millinery items, such as military or sailor caps or derby hats. Jaunty Alpine hats were also popular with Victorian female cyclists and were usually created from felt and trimmed with a lone feather, a simple band, or several curling quills. Tam-O’Shanter caps, a nineteenth century nickname for the traditional Scottish bonnet worn by men, was another millinery choice and one of the popular Victorian bicycle fashions.
Yet, riders were not just thinking about the importance of bicycling fashions. The bicycle that people rode was also considered because riders wanted to ensure their bicycle remained in good shape. Therefore, covers were designed to fit either the dropped or raised handlebars that were popular at the time. These covers protected bicycles from the harsh elements, as noted by The Delineator:
“[Bicycle covers offer] a great convenience for protecting a bicycle from dust and rust, dust being apt to collect in the bearings and the nickel trimmings being liable to become tarnished by dampness in the atmosphere where the bicycle is left exposed.”
Bicycle covers were simple, two-part designs with machine seams and with several rows of machine stitching at the hem. They were made from heavy, sturdy fabrics, such as duck or duck canvas (a plain-woven cotton fabric), canvas, cretonne (a strong, fabric with a hempen warp and linen weft), denim, or linen. The covers also came in a variety of colors from browns and grays to blues and greens. An example of the dropped and raised handle-bar covers are shown below.
America’s devoted feminist and social reformer, Susan B. Anthony, coined the bicycle the “freedom machine.” The president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Frances Willard, thought so highly of the bicycle she wrote an entire book. She also named her bicycle “Gladys” and noted its “exhilarating motion … and the gladdening effect of its acquaintance … [on her] health and disposition.”
Anthony also noted how the bicycle allowed women unprecedented independence, and the ability of the bicycle to free nineteenth century women cannot be underestimated. In a letter to a bicycle calendar maker, Anthony provided her sentiments on the bicycle stating:
“I think the bicycle has done more to emancipate women from the thralldom of fashion than any other thing, and I hope it will not go out of use.”
Anthony need not have worried.
-  Martin, Edward Sanford, Cousin Anthony and I, 1895, p. 146.
-  The Delineator, Vol. LII, No. 3, September 1898, p. 295.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  The Delineator, Vol. LII, No. 2, August 1898, p. 169.
-  Willard, Frances Elizabeth, A Wheel Within a Wheel, 1895, p. 53.
-  Harper, Ida Husted, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, 1908, p. 1293.