Visible Women

How female Victorian inventors used fashion to protect women cyclists

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Emily Reynolds
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Victorian women were often subject to abuse when they rode bikes – but, new research has found, they had their own way of dealing with it…

Riding a bike, for most of us, doesn’t really feel like a luxury; it’s something we take for granted.

Our Victorian forebears were not so lucky, with many female riders pelted with stones or on the receiving end of verbal abuse when they rode their bikes. Conservative ideas about women’s clothing meant they couldn’t wear trousers to cycle, either, meaning that their long skirts could get stuck in the spokes of their bicycles.

But new research has uncovered a number of devices used to get around this difficulty – including a pulley system that enabled women to ride their bikes unfettered.

One inventor, Londoner Alice Bygrave, created a pulley system that adjusted the height of a skirt, and dressmaker Julia Gill created a ‘semi-skirt’ filled with concealed rings on which to gather fabric when cycling. Women’s rights activist Henrietta Miller, meanwhile, created a “cycling suit” featuring a skirt that could be “raised in height via loops sewn into the hem”.

Writing in The Guardian, researcher Dr Kat Jungernickel described the devices as “ingenious”.

“Researching how early cyclists made their bodies mobile through clothing reveals much about the social and physical barriers they were navigating and brings to light fascinating tales of ingenious inventions,” she explains. 

“These inventions are just some of the fascinating ways early female cyclists responded to challenges to their freedom of movement. Through new radical garments and their differently clad bodies they pushed against established forms of gendered citizenship and the stigma of urban harassment. 

“Claiming their designs through patenting was not only a practical way of sharing and distributing ideas; it was also a political act.”

“These inventions are not always told through loud or heroic narratives” 

Dr Jungernickel also pointed out that the inventions point to the gendered narratives around innovation, saying they “remind us that not all inventions are told through loud or heroic narratives”.

“These inventors put in an awful lot of work to not be seen,” she said. “They were successful in many ways, yet the nature of their deliberately concealed designs combined with gender norms of the time means they have been hidden in history – we have yet to find any examples in museums.”

There’s other evidence that Victorians had a more liberated approach to life than we might think – including their use of sex toys. 

In 2017, a rare Victorian sex toy went up for auction – a so-called “ladies companion” carved from an elephant tusk and created as a gift for a prominent society figure’s wife. 

“He would not have known that he was coming home, and would have wanted his wife to have this,” said auctioneer Damien Matthews.

“This was a very enlightened family, and this would have been a very loving gift from a husband to wife”. 

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.

Images: Getty