Bikes, bloomers and making cycling safe for women through design

Written by

Women cyclists face a few hurdles today but nothing like the ladies of the late nineteenth century. DnA explores design solutions then and now, to changing the mix of cyclists on our roads.

Women today make up only a third of cyclists on the roads of the US, due to deterrents including fear of riding busy arterials streets (even with painted bike lanes) and discomfort with the dominant “bro culture.”

We discuss the role road design can make in addressing some of these concerns, and the importance of “normalizing” cycling if it is to be safe and attractive for all, in this conversation with Seleta Reynolds, head of the Department of Transportation at the City of Los Angeles.

Another roadblock for women is clothing, says Nona Varnado, an activist and former cycle-wear designer. “A lot of women don’t want to have to modify what they’re wearing. If you talk to guys, it’s like, ‘I’ll just wear those pants or shorts,’ they look fine. It’s a very simple conversation,” she said.

But one thing women no longer have to contend with is riding a bicycle while wearing “a long full length skirt, up to seven pounds of heavy layered petticoats, tightly laced corsets, tailored blouses, vests, jackets, gloves and veils.”

That was regular female clothing when the bicycle appeared in the late 19th century, explains Dr. Katrina Jungnickel, author of a new book called Bikes and Bloomers: Victorian Women Inventors and their Extraordinary Cycle Wear.

Jungnickel, also a guest on this week’s episode of DnA, said that riding a bicycle was hugely attractive to women who could afford one, because it represented freedom. But it wasn’t easy for them.

“Newspapers are filled with terrible stories of women dying or becoming disfigured as a result of having terrible crashes because their clothing was catching in wheels or getting wrapped around pedals,” she explains.

So some women wore what was called “rational dress” and others even invented custom-garments they called “convertible cycle-wear.”

One of the more amazing examples of convertible cycle-wear was designed by a dressmaker from a biking-enthusiast family in Brixton called Alice Louisa Bygrave.

She patented a garment in 1895 for “Improvements in Ladies’ Cycling Skirts.”

It had a pulley system built into it made of weights (in the hem) and waxed cords “threaded from the weights through stitched channels up to the waistband… so you’d have no idea that this was such a garment that would convert into anything else until the wearer got close to her bicycle, would pull the cords out from the waist and then pull them up much like a curtain.”

Jungnickel didn’t just do the research. She and a team made the outfits from old patterns and actually tested them out.

She says that cycling enabled a new form of citizenship for women, both in moving through public space and through engaging in inventing and patenting. “So I think these [designs] really bring to light women’s engagement and contributions as inventors and engineers and as designers,” she said.