The Cycling Dress & The New Woman

With cycling’s increasingly popularity among women during the late 1880s and 1890s, clothing that was suitable for wear while cycling also became popular. In comparison to previous styles, women were now able to wear styles that allowed for greater physical movement and major designers such as John Redfern were quick to follow. In a broad sense, cycling suits were a manifestation of the spirit of the “New Woman” that was growing in the 1880s and 1890s- women were increasingly becoming more than simply domestic matrons, they were now participating in many facets of public life to include participating in sports and pursuing careers outside of the house (to be sure, this was not a universal phenomenon but it was a major start).

Naturally, I also wanted to create a dress that both reflected this spirit of the “New Woman” while at the same time providing a practical cycling garment; towards this end, we did some practical research first and came up with this circa 1890 day dress:

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Rear View

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Side Profile

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Faux Shirtwaist Bodice

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Collar

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Faux Shirtwaist Bodice

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Cuff

And for some details:

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Trim Detail

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Inset Boning

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Interior Of The Bodice

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Interior Of Bodice

As can be seen from the above pictures, this is a structured garment that was meant to be worn with a corset. Although the bodice is boned, this is meant to maintain the shape of the garment rather than sculpt the torso to fit as a corset would. The base fabric is a lightweight linen and is definitely meant for warmer weather.

And now, here’s my interpretation of the above dress:

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Interior of the habit bodice, this is the fitted underbodice. It’s attached to the main garment at the side seams.

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Under construction on the dress dummy.

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The finished outfit on display.

The first major decision we had to make was in regard to the base fabric. After some consideration, we ultimately decided to go with a lightweight wool gaberdine since that was considered the only proper fabric for cycling dresses and it also provides a high degree of durability. In regard to wool, the April 1897 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book:

Redfern has found by experience that the Scotch tweeds are by far the best materials for wear, the mixed weave showing the wear and tear of the road much less than the covert suitings or plain ladies’ cloths.

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Redfern Cycling Suit; from the April 1897 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, p. 443.

The above image s a classic interpretation of the cycling suit by Redfern and it served as an additional source of inspiration for my design. An essential part of any cycling suit is good tailoring and this I incorporated into the bodice and skirt. At the same time, in order to incorporate elements from the above day dress, design changes had to be made in order to adapt for this dress to be used for cycling. Specifically, the bodice has padding at the shoulders, the front armscye, and the sleeve cuffs and the habit bodice hem and the skirt hem. That’s for both safety and freedom of movement. Also, the bodice is tailored with all the stripes mitered and matching. Finally, the buttons are wooden balls covered with fabric.

One thing I learned the hard way was with with the trim: never wear a ruffled petticoat when cycling! I tore up the ruffle in the chain case, so that’s the reason for all those weights and padded hems for sporting suits for ladies. It’s amazing what one learns in the course of actually constructing period garments.

Here are some pictures of me wearing the dress:

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One interesting thing about cycling was that a lady had two methods of eye protection…those newfangled outdoor glasses (green lenses were considered healthful) or to wear her hat pinned and perched forward.

Cycling suits are a fascinating aspect of 1880s/1890s fashion and reflect the changing position of women in society. I hope you’ve enjoyed looking at this as much as I enjoyed designing this dress.