Vonny Leclerc

Knickerbocker glories

The daring and ingenuity of Victorian female cyclists and their clothes did much to advance women’s lib

One September day the 16-year-old Tessie Reynolds got on her bike. In a homemade suit, she pedalled from London to Brighton and back, in eight and a half hours. It was 1893.

The intrepid velocipedienne made the 190km journey in record time in an age of masculine heroics. But it was not her derring-do that scandalised the press into conniptions but her clothes: she was in short trousers. This was an era when women were shunned for egregious displays of ankle, meaning that Tessie’s dress was both revolutionary and overtly political. Behind the public tutting, her ‘rationals’ ignited women’s imaginations, showing a new way of moving and being in the world. She was inundated with pattern requests.

Cycling fever peaked in the 1890s. Though it was comparatively easy to do in men’s clothing, womenswear limited and endangered riders. Dress reformers sought rational clothing with the freedom to move in. Others pondered how they might satisfy their cycling urges without the grief that comes from looking like a cyclist. My collection of tweed breeches addresses the same dilemma — it’s the only sensible option for someone who’d rather cycle nude than submit to the horrors of Lycra.

Whether for dress reformer or proper lady cyclist, the bicycle was the nonpareil vehicle of women’s lib, though women are notably absent from much of cycling’s history. Kat Jungnickel’s exploration of radical feminist invention and making captures what the history books missed. Women weren’t bystanders, they were creators. They used the means they had available, the imagination and the needle, to explore their nascent independence, engineering and patenting their way into modernity through transformational cyclewear. Creating clothing that quickly converted from ‘practical’ to ‘proper’, they gave women the flexibility to move in public spaces on their own terms.

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