By far the larger number of our lady riders began their cycling experiences upon sociables or tandems with their husbands or brothers, and thus gained by degrees the experience and confidence necessary for the fullest enjoyment of a cruise upon wheels, eventually attaining the self reliance necessary for a trip upon a single machine. It is perhaps upoon a tandem with a gentleman companion that a lady rider looks most at home, and when, clad in a well-fitting and becoming costume, she flits by on the front seat of one of these light and speedy machines, the most sceptical observer is converted to the same view.
This fact is fully recognized by the general public, who have been quite educated up to the sight of lady tricyclists perambulating the roads, and gaze upon them with the same sort of indifference with which a nineteenth-century horse gazes upon a railway train or a steam-roller.
– The Badminton Library: Cycling, by Viscount Bury and G. Lacy Hillier
The lady’s tricycle of the 1870s and ’80s had a major advantage over the single machine, inasmuch as acceptable female costume needed little amendment for riding. Even Queen Victoria had purchased several tricycles. Women had previously ridden horses side-saddle, because Victorian convention dictated that ladies did not sit astride any contrivance. But even as society started to get used to the idea of ladies mounting a single machine – the safety bicycle – it became immediately apparent that another conflict existed. Corsets were entirely impractical for riding. Contention over this issue, and the various arguments over cycling attire for ladies, raged for many years. ‘Some wise people say that corsets should be discarded for cycling,’ commented Fanny Erskine. ‘This is not correct. There should be no approach to tight-lacing, but a pair of woollen-cased corsets afford great support; they keep the figure from going all abroad, and protect the vital parts from chills.’
Lady Harberton, president of the Rational Dress Society, founded in 1881, countered: ‘What can be the true state of intelligence of a creature which deliberately loads itself with quantities of useless material round its legs… and then, in order to correct the ugliness of such a dress, squeezes in its body until the vital functions can only be carried on imperfectly?’
Despite female cycle riders being ostracised in polite society, women cyclists persevered. I’ve read reports of women cyclists having stones thrown at them and being shunned in their neighbourhoods, such was the challenge to traditional views. Bear in mind that bicycles themselves had not yet been totally accepted by society, with some decrying them from pulpits as ‘the devil’s own transport.’ Eventually, cycling helped re-shape public attitudes toward restrictive female costume.
Early lady cyclists were real pioneers. Perhaps a fair comparison today, in terms of its shock value, might be that of a woman riding a bicycle naked through a city street …which brings me neatly to The World Naked Bike Ride, an event I support locally.
Every June, in cities around around the world, people ride bikes naked to celebrate cycling and the human body. The ride demonstrates the vulnerability of cyclists and is a protest against oil dependency. Best of all, the participants are in good spirits and bring smiles to the faces of passers-by.
Unfortunately this year, in Brighton, the weather dampened the proceedings a little. Nevertheless, there was still a good turn-out.
Above, parading through Kemptown.
I’m not sure what it is about riding a 120-year-old bicycle in costume that makes women want to take off their clothes and stand next to you?
It’s a long video so it might be easier to see it on youtube: