How Cycling Clothing Opened Doors for Women

Advances in biking gear had an impact on advances in gender equality. An Object Lesson.

Three line sketches of women wearing bloomers-style outfits and standing next to bicycles
Bloomers-style bicycling outfits were popular in the late 19th century. (Bettmann / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

I was rushing to a 10 a.m. meeting with the director of the organization where I had just started working. In an attempt to look less disheveled than usual, I was wearing a long, red skirt. And I was cycling rapidly to get there in time.

Cycling became gradually harder the closer I got to work. Eventually, I couldn’t ignore the resistance to my pedaling, and I saw the culprit: The bottom of my skirt had gotten entangled in the bike spokes. I tried to extricate it gently. When this didn’t work, I started yanking. The skirt tore off unevenly, the ends marked by unsightly patches of bike grease. I looked like I’d gotten into a fight with an urban fox, and lost.

Dressing for a commute should be straightforward. Yet this becomes more complicated when the commute involves a bicycle, and when the clothing is intended for a woman.

Pants, like bicycles, have long been associated with mobility. Despite confining each leg, or more accurately because they confine each leg, pants allow greater freedom of movement: freedom from worrying about exposing too much skin, freedom from updrafts, and, as my skirt slaughter shows, freedom from flowing material getting stuck where it shouldn’t.

This isn’t trivial. Victorian-era newspapers reported (and perhaps sensationalized) female cyclists dying because of massive skirts that blew up and obscured their view, or dresses that wrapped around their pedals. A letter published in the Daily Press in 1896, for instance, commented of a cyclist’s death, “I think she failed because she could not see the pedals, as the flapping skirt hid them from her view, and she had to fumble for them. Could she have taken but a momentary glance at their position, she would have had a good chance to save her life.” Critics seized upon such tragedies to argue that women were unsuited to ride bikes. For some, it was more convenient to blame women’s audacity in mounting a bicycle than the restrictive clothing that made doing so perilous.

As is traditional with things that allow women greater freedom, both women’s cycling and women’s cycling pants have occasioned plenty of moral panic. During the 1890s, when bicycling exploded in popularity among the middle and upper classes in the United Kingdom, journalists and others condemned female cyclists for their wantonness. Women on bicycles were pelted with objects and obscenities. These unchaperoned women, some people worried, could be pedaling away to engage in prostitution or lesbianism.

Cycling trousers, along with women on bikes, were also a target of ridicule. English travelers reported wistfully in 1890s travel memoirs and periodicals like The Rational Dress Gazette that the French were more nonchalant about women wearing pants on bikes. (It’s possible that they went too far in the other direction, as until 2013 it was officially illegal for women to wear pants in Paris unless they were on bikes or horses.)

Bloomers, essentially voluminous trousers tied at the ankle and often worn under short skirts, had been popularized back in the 1850s by the women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer. And in the 1870s, the United Kingdom experienced a penny-farthing fad—one of several bicycling crazes. A penny-farthing, or high-wheeler, consisted of a large wheel, where the cyclist would perch, connected to a smaller wheel. This was largely a trend for affluent young men, and it’s likely that the few women who participated needed to borrow men’s clothing to do so. It would be decades before clothing intended for women–including bloomers and convertible cycle wear—were widely seen on female cyclists.

The pivotal period for women’s cycling clothing was the 1890s cycling craze, when the standard modern bike (the “safety bicycle”) became trendy. This period is a focus of Kat Jungnickel, a University of London cycling sociologist and the author of Bikes and Bloomers: Victorian Women Inventors and Their Extraordinary Cycle Wear. The related Bikes and Bloomers project, led by Jungnickel, excavates the cycling garments patented by Victorian women in the 1890s, and reconstructs certain designs. To see the heavy and mechanically inventive Victorian designs on contemporary London cyclists is jarring. In today’s fast-fashion, ready-to-wear, athleisure-loving world, these garments are clearly relics.

As part of the rational dress movement, which sought to make the conventional clothing of the Victorian era more comfortable, cycling helped to highlight the utter impracticality of corsets. Many of the 1890s designs also reappropriated the bloomers of several decades earlier. Innovators were creating new designs for bloomers and combining breeches with skirts in various ways.

And they were often obscuring bloomers altogether. Convertible cycling garments frequently involved hardware such as weighted pulleys, hooks, and elaborate straps. Because cycling trousers were so contested in the United Kingdom and the United States, one way for women to limit harassment was to combine the feminine appearance of skirts with the practicality of pants. Ida M. Rew’s “athletic suit for ladies,” patented in 1895, hid trousers under a full skirt and attached them to a bodice.

But some activists, including members of ladies’ bicycling associations, disparaged these convertible designs precisely for their ability to hide in plain sight. It was argued that increasingly mobile women—whose lifestyles increasingly demanded practical clothing—needed to be publicly visible. Obvious sports attire also helped to make the general public more comfortable with the idea of women in pants. As the Bury and Norwich Post and Suffolk Herald reported on December 2, 1890, “Public opinion seems to be very indulgent to innovations that have a real raison d’être and are not the outcome of any particular theory.” Women in cycling trousers eased the way for women in trousers more generally.

Thus, around the turn of the 20th century, cycling pants were a focus for anxieties and excitements about changing notions of acceptable femininity. As Jungnickel writes, “women’s cycle wear became visual shorthand for the ‘New Woman’ who was identified by her desire for progress, ‘independent spirit, and her athletic zeal.’” This idea of women’s cycling pants as a symbol of gender relations would persist.

Pants became more acceptable garments for British and American women during the world wars, when women on the home front were increasingly called upon (and allowed) to do what had previously been seen as men’s work. Cycling pants, like pants for factory, agricultural, and eventually office work, had both practical and symbolic advantages. They helped to legitimize women’s presence in traditionally male spheres.

Claire McCardell, a sportswear designer, helped make women’s cycling pants more fashionable. While less sleek than today’s designs, they were clearly much more functional than baggy bloomers or Inspector Gadget–style convertible cycle wear. McCardell’s postwar bicycling culottes were a streamlined version of the hybrid skirt/trousers of the turn of the century. The volume hinted at the shape of a skirt, but the bifurcation of the pant legs aided cycling.

The cycling fashion transformations that followed were, like the embrace of sewing machines and patent culture in the Victorian era, partly rooted in an embrace of technology. An American chemist invented spandex in the late 1950s, following innovations with other stretch fabrics. Synthetic textiles allowed designers to move away from the weight of wool and the stickiness of silk. The spandex brand Lycra would become particularly associated with cycling getups like bib shorts, whose shoulder straps were more comfortable than the complicated systems pioneered by the Victorians.

This has been for good and for bad. Driver hostility to cyclists sometimes manifests in epithets like “Lycra loonies” and the assumption that Lycra-clad cyclists are affluent, aggressive, and entitled. (To be fair, dedicated cycling clothing remains pricey, so there’s a reasonable association with high income.) This belief makes some drivers less cautious around the spandex set.

But the synthetic-clothing revolution has disproportionately benefited male cyclists. Take saddle sores, which aren’t limited to horse riders. Hardcore cyclists are familiar with the redness and chafing that can afflict the delicate regions that come into contact with a bike saddle. A cyclist can increase comfort by adjusting the riding position and saddle. But another important element is clothing, and it took a surprisingly long time for cycling performance clothes to integrate women’s needs.

The chamois is the padded segment of bike shorts, which helps to cushion a cyclist’s sensitive parts. While modern bike shorts with foam chamois have existed since the 1980s, it took years for chamois designers to commonly adjust the cuts and levels of padding to suit women’s anatomy (such as wider sit bones). There’s still a remarkable lack of innovation targeting cyclists who want to ride during their periods, given that cycling shorts are designed to be worn without underwear.

This isn’t to say that bike shorts in performance fabrics are necessary for the average person on a bike. It’s striking that in cities with bike-friendly infrastructure or culture, like Amsterdam or Beijing, bike shorts and even helmets aren’t standard parts of cycle wear. As Bella Bathurst, the author of The Bicycle Book, has written of Copenhagen’s cycling culture, “Sites such as make it plain that on a bike with a skirt guard and a step-through frame, it’s perfectly possible to pedal across town with stilettos, two children, and several large items of kitchen furniture.”

Of course, the image of effortless bike-riding chic creates its own gendered expectations of women remaining fresh and decorative even during physical exertion. Yet for ordinary use, for ordinary people, technical bike clothing may seem inaccessible or outlandish. As women’s everyday wear has become more comfortable and affordable, it’s become increasingly practical to cycle in ordinary clothes, with specialized bike shorts and pants more the preserve of competitive cyclists or those who take riding seriously.

In fact, plenty of people have argued that focusing on cyclist clothing and helmets can actually be a barrier to safety, as it spreads the perception that cycling is dangerous. This both reduces the safety-in-numbers effect of abundant cyclists, as in Amsterdam, and diverts responsibility for cycling-safe conditions from policy makers to individuals, as in many American cities.

Lycra is also of limited use for women whose cultural traditions don’t align with skin-tight clothing. One Saudi cyclist, Baraah Luhaid, kept having to deal with her abaya (a robe-style dress) getting stuck in her bike chain. This inspired her to create and pursue a patent for a cycling abaya with legs. Luhaid is one of a number of designers seeking to integrate activewear with Islamic dress. And her DIY attitude is a clear link to the Victorian women with their sewing machines, creating their own cycling garments and claiming ownership of them.

In modern-day Saudi Arabia, as in Victorian England, a new piece of clothing isn’t going to alter gender roles by itself. It only became legal for Saudi women to bike in 2013, and even then only in certain public spaces, in the presence of a male guardian. And in areas where women’s cycling isn’t regulated but is still unusual, as in Zimbabwe, gender-based harassment may be rife, even before shorts enter the picture.

Their use has waxed and waned based on class, time period, and culture. But women’s bike pants are iconic of a kind of mobility and bodily autonomy that parallels advances in gender equality more generally.