As we started to investigate women’s cycle clothing, we learned of the important role it played 140 years ago in the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the UK and the US.
Women had been excluded when cycling exploded in popularity in the late 1800s. Cycling was not deemed an acceptable hobby for women and those who dared cycle were attacked for their immorality.
Clothing was a real problem for women who wanted to ride as the accepted female dress standards of the day just weren’t practical. Equally, practical clothing bothered those who didn’t want women to ride. Women in trousers were thought to epitomise moral decay, prosecutions were not uncommon and misogynistic ridicule was the norm. It’s worth noting that the French didn't get as nearly as exercised about all of this as the British or Americans.
In 1881 the Rational Dress Society was established by Florence Wallace Pomeroy, Viscountess Harberton, to champion the rights of women to wear clothes that were suitable, practical and comfortable.
Women’s cycle clothing became a lightning rod for society’s debate about acceptable femininity, and cycling became visual shorthand for the ‘New Woman’ who was identified by ‘her desire for progress, her independent spirit, and her athletic zeal’.
In 1899, Viscountess Florence Harberton went to court to defend her right to be served tea in a Surrey pub whilst wearing cycling trousers. She lost.
20 years earlier, the Viscountess had founded the Rational Dress Society to fight for the principle that women should be able to wear clothing appropriate to their activity or task, rather than that which society expected. it was a bitter campaign and she was in the minority for a depressingly long time.
The idea of women cycling (and their clothes) was a particular problem for a large swathe of Victorians who were convinced it would lead to prostitution amongst other things. Women cyclists were frequently subjected to public ridicule and physical attacks.
Cycling thus became a touchstone within the Rational Dress Movement and the overall fight for gender equality - a fight that Florence continued right up until her death in 1911.