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:




Rear View


Side Profile


Faux Shirtwaist Bodice

victredseashoreoutfitxxxx (1)



Faux Shirtwaist Bodice

victredseashoreoutfitxx (1)


And for some details:

victredseashoreoutfitxxx (1)

Trim Detail


Inset Boning


Interior Of The Bodice


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:

Cycling Dress3

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

Cycling Dress7

Under construction on the dress dummy.

Cycling Dress2

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.


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:

Cycling Dress6

Cycling Dress8

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.

Fashion In Action…


When it comes to fashions of the 1880s – 1890s, people tend to think that they were impractical and completely non-functional. Well, that was not always the case and in fact, things were dramatically changing as women began taking up outside pursuits such as hiking, cycling, tennis, and golf. In fact, by the 1890s, cycling was a becoming a major phenomenon and this was reflected in fashion where outfits were designed around the need for clothes that would not interfere with riding a bicycle.

Below is a picture of us at a Tweed Ride that was held last January:

Tweed Ride1

Here we are at the start of the ride.

Tweed Ride1

And another one… 🙂

Sponsored by CicLAvia, the tweed ride is held every year in January and it’s theme is dressing up in tweed or other period-esque clothing of the late 19th/early 20th Centuries. The ride is tailored towards older “slow bikes” (no Tour-de-France stuff here 🙂 with an emphasis on a more period feeling.  This distance was about ten miles with on mostly level ground (although there were some steep grades we had to negotiate in a couple of places). The clothing guidelines are fairly loose and people interpret “tweed” in many ways (including Adam in his German uniform) but it’s all good fun. For us, this event is tailor-made to get out, get some fresh air and exercise, and, of course, wear our clothes. 🙂


Adam in his Bavarian Cavalry uniform, c. 1916, representing the 2 Chevauleger.

Not only did we get some fresh air and exercise, we got to meet some very nice people and after socializing for awhile after the ride, we headed back to the start point which was about three miles from the start point. Now, one would have thought that would have been it for the day but no…the skies had been clouding up all day and finally the heavens let loose with raid and hail. Yes, HAIL…in Southern California. And we rode all three miles through it in our period clothes. And you know what? They held up just find and just required some drying out when we got home. So much for the idea that these styles are fragile and impractical. 🙂

We are definitely looking forward to the next tweed ride (hopefully without hail). 🙂

Trending for March 13, 1898….

Fashions do not develop in a vacuum and bicycle suits are no exception. With women taking up cycling during the 1880s/1890s, there was a need for practical clothing. One of the key trends seen in cycling clothes was the shortening of the skirt, necessitated by the need to avoid getting the skirt tangled up on the chain plus facilitating mounting and dismounting of the bike. Moreover, the materials used tended towards the more sturdy, practical and possessing some water repellent qualities.


The article below is from the March 13, 1898 issue of the Los Angeles Herald and it comments on cycling clothes as well as other practical aspects of women’s dress. What is most striking is that presents an tiny window into some of the fashion trends that were developing during the 1890s that reflected the rise of the New Woman. Enjoy!


From the March 13, 1898 issue of the Los Angeles Herald.

Lily Absinthe Takes a Brief Look at the New Woman of the 1890s

To the casual observer, the 1890s seemed to be little different from previous decades and was simply part of a monolithic seemingly never-ending “Victorian  Era”. However, the reality was far different and during this decade, major social, political, and economic changes were beginning to occur. Some changes would take decades to ultimately play out while others would occur at a much faster rate.

One of the most profound social changes during the 1890s was the rise of the “New Woman,” a woman who pursued an autonomous life independent from traditional marriage and motherhood. One key elements of the “New Woman” was that she was not economically dependent on a husband, pursuing an independent career. While this was the ideal, in practice it did not always work out this way but still it signaled a major change in women’s social roles. Along with this sense of independence, women also pursued leisure time activities outside of the home, something facilitated by the development of various sporting activities such as bicycling.

The rise of the New Woman was naturally reflected in the world of fashion. Most significantly, fashions began to become somewhat more functional (although the corset still remained part as an element of dress). With more women entering the workforce on the white collar level, more practical styles developed, the two most notable being the shirtwaist/skirt combination and the tailormade suit.

First, we turn to the shirtwaist/skirt combination. Shirtwaists were available in an almost endless multitude of styles and materials, the shirtwaist was a basic garment and available at prices for just about every wallet. Some were more feminine, featuring embroidery while others were meant to mimic men’s shirts. Fabrics could vary from sturdy cottons for day wear to silks and taffetas for more formal evening wear and came in white and various colors. Finally, sleeves tended to be larger around the shoulders during the early to mid 1890s, mimicking the distinct leg of mutton sleeve style found in dresses of the period.


Shirtwaist, American, c. 1899 – 1902; Made of cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.51.15.16a, b)


Detachable Collar, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The above shirtwaist has a band collar, intended for use with a detachable collar as pictured below:


Shirtwaist, c. 1890 – 1899; made of silk; Fashion Institute of Design Museum (2003.793.7AB)

The above examples are interesting in that the pleating is gathered into a band along the bottom of the shirtwaist. This would be covered by the skirt, thus creating a crisp, neat appearance.

Now for something a bit more fancy:


Shirtwaist, c. 1895; Made of silk/cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.56.10.8)

And it came in colors:


Shirtwaist, c. 1896 – 1898; Made from color print cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.59.32.4)

The shirtwaist/skirt combination was extremely versatile and could be used as an early form of sportswear for activities such as golf:


Shirtwaist and skirt combination with belt, c. 1893; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC2122 79-6-9AF, AC2123-2124 79-6-10AB)


Charles Dana Gibson, once again…

  And of course, bicycling 🙂 :


Charles Dana Gibson, 1896


Unknown woman, probably early to mid 1890s, judging from the sleeves.

 Ties were sometimes worn with the shirtwaist for a more formal look:


Radfahrkostüm (Bicycle costume), c. 1900; Wien Museum

During the 1890s, tailors began to branch out into women’s clothing, making tailored suits styled for women and were known as “Tailoremades”. These afforded a more practical mode of dress for women who left the home. Below are just a few examples:


Suit, American, c. 1892; Made from wool and cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.53.72.9a–c)

The lines of the above suit are clean, the skirt relatively narrow. Overall, there is little adornment although the jacket is cut wide to expose the shirtwaist underneath. On top, wide lapels catch the eye and the trim pattern helps set them off. Overall, an understated look that reflected the rise of the “New Woman.”


Suit, French, 1895; Designed by the Jacques Doucet; Made from linen, with collar and cuffs embroidered with silk cord, elastic stays attached to the inside of the skirt to control the fullness; V&A Museum (T.15&A-1979)


Another view.

Once again we see clean lines only now the skirt is perhaps a little wider and the sleeves taking on the leg of mutton style. There is little in the way of decorative adornments except for the lapels but even here it’s hard to make out.


Suit, c. 1898; McCord Museum (M2003.12.2.1-2)

Finally, we have an example representative of the late 1890s. The lines of the suit are still clean only now both the skirt and sleeves are narrow and restrained. There is some decoration but it’s subtle.

Also, like their male counterparts, Tailormades could also take the form of a three-piece suit:


Finally, Tailormade Suits also were a logical choice for women who wanted to ride bicycles and the market responded with some of the first examples of “sportswear”. The only difference between the cycling suit and a regular Tailormade suit was that the skirt was shorter. Below is one example:

Picture 015

Cycling Suit, American, c. 1896 – 1898; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.532a–d)

The 1890s saw women taking on a more independent, autonomous existence and fashion followed this trend. While it fell short of what was to come during the mid to late 20th Century, it was still a major departure for women and one can see the traditional order of male/female relationships begin to shift. Fashion is constantly adapting to social change and the 1890s were no exception. The Victorian Era was definitely on its way out.