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On Cycling Costumes: Pants, Skirts, and Boots

Though some parts of the northern hemisphere may still feel as hot as summer, there’s no denying it- autumn is on its way! Therefore, we have boots on the mind. Our Adventure Boots make for the best fall footwear. We are so excited to be styling Bessie Boots and Cambridge Bicycle Boots with our favorite autumnal outfits!

What makes a bicycle boot, a bicycle boot? Actually, what did the Edwardians wear while riding their bikes? The history of early cycling-wear is absolutely fascinating, and even a bit controversial.

In the final years of the 19th century (especially in the belle epoque era and fin-de-sieclé), bicycles had a boom in popularity as they became more widely produced and accessible to more groups of people. The zeitgeist of these years was marked by ideological innovation, liberation, tension, and societal changes, and the clothing of the time was reflective of these changes and thoughts. Groups like the Rational Dress Movement were promoting their ideologies about dress reform, and ideas about women’s roles in society were beginning to see the seeds of some changes. The bicycle came to be seen as a symbol of the “New Woman”, who transgressed traditional gender boundaries in an effort to gain more social freedoms. The bicycle itself did, in fact, provide more social freedoms to women, as it was an efficient and more accessible means of transportation: one that required specialized clothing.

Voluminous floor-length skirts and petticoats were not exactly suitable for bicycle rides. It was a safety issue as well as an etiquette/”modesty” issue, as long skirts could be caught in the chain of a bicycle. Cycling suits with specialty skirts made it a bit easier to cycle. These specialty skirts were shorter than usual, with hems varying from ankle length to under the knees. Sometimes, cycling skirts had divided trouser legs underneath a skirt facade; think Victorian/Edwardian skorts.

This divided skirt design had hidden inner divisions for the legs.
The costume in this illustration features a skirt and bloomers underneath.

Bicycles could be outfitted with a ‘skirt guard’, which helped to prevent skirts from getting tangled in the spokes of the wheels.

This rear wheel guard would have helped prevent skirts from getting tangled in the wheel spokes.

Cycling suits with fully bifurcated garments really made a difference, though. Bloomer costumes, split skirts, and other sorts of trousers for women began to gain popularity as they made cycling much easier (and safer!). Dress reformers were big fans of these practical sorts of garments. Others saw them as immodest, improper, or even as the harbinger of social degeneration. A woman with a bike was able to travel more freely and to engage with more traditionally ‘male’ activities, like higher education and political organizing (gasp!). Add pants to the mix, and traditionalists felt even more threatened.

Cartoon from the time. Gasp!
Antique advertisement for cycling clothing and gear.

You may have seen cycling costumes before, either as costumes, in fashion plates, or in movies/on television. Jackets (with or without puffy sleeves), coats, or capes were often worn, with cotton or linen shirtwaists underneath. Cycling jackets often displayed jaunty braided trim on the fronts or backs (like this one that Lauren made). Cycling sweaters with distinctive leg-o-mutton sleeves (like this one we love from Emmy Design Sweden) were also popular.

Our friend Liza looked amazing in this Emmy Design Sweden Edwardian cycling sweater at our Cambridge boot photoshoot in Virginia City last year!

The top half of the cycling costume would have been paired with one of the aforementioned controversial cycling bottoms. Bloomers and baggy knickerbockers were an option, as were split skirts with wider legs. Breathable wool and linen were popular textiles for cycling costumes (anyone who has cycled in the heat can probably understand why).

Annie Londonderry in a bifurcated bicycle costume. Have you heard of Annie Londonderry? She was the first woman to cycle the globe, and she was a total badass. There are a few good articles about her on the Jewish Women’s Archive if you want to learn more.

Cycling costumes were worn with suitable cycling shoes or boots, of course! Shoes would often be paired gaiters, which helped to protect the legs.

Gaiters for sale in the Sears Catalog, 1920. From “Everyday Fashions of the Twenties”

Cycling boots took it a step further. They were usually calf-high, close-fitting leather boots, with practical heels. Some had fabric panels on the sides with leather foxing, like one of the pairs we based Cambridge on.

Look familiar?
These boots are all leather, with adjustable straps.
Another pair with adjustable straps.

There’s just something special about a cycling costume, perhaps because they still evoke a sense of daring.

These knickerbockers are from one of our favorite online historical clothing retailers, Gibson Girl Dress. They are so high quality, and paired fantastically with our brown Cambridge boots and Emmy’s cycling sweater!
Cambridge in black/burgundy with another gorgeous ensemble from Gibson Girl Dress.

Our US store currently has Cambridge Bicycle Boots in stock in four beautiful colorways. They are ready to ship to you now, so you can wear them all through fall. Brown Cambridge Bicycle boots are coming to the EU store next week!

Cambridge Bicycle Boots in brown; so gorgeous and autumnal.

3 Comments

  • Leigh

    September 8, 2022 at 8:42 PM

    Split skirts! oh.MY!! What would they say of the skin tight cycling gear of today? We’d need the smelling salts for sure. Love those boots!

    Reply
  • Stéphanie

    September 9, 2022 at 7:46 AM

    Just a very gentle correction, it is “fin-de-siècle.”
    I love your blog, I’ve been reading since 2010 or 11, and your shoes. I have three pairs and wear them all the time. I bought Londoners when they were first released and they still look nearly new, even though I wear them several times a week. All you shoes get tonnes of compliments and they are the only shoes that people stop me to ask about. I wear them with my everyday business clothes.
    Thank you so much.

    Reply

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