The development of new technology often brings about the greatest changes in fashion. In the 1890s, the introduction of the bicycle led to significant changes in women’s fashion. Prior to this decade, women had always worn skirts or dresses whose design followed strict rules regarding appropriateness and modesty, and which were often very heavy and restricting.
Many women wanted to ride bicycles but this was considered unsuitable. While it was acceptable for women to ride side-saddle on a horse, riding a bicycle was deemed almost indecent, certainly shocking!
The first women to ride bicycles in New Zealand were twins Bertha and Blanche Thompson who in 1892, along with several other young adventurous women, formed the Atlanta Cycling Club, especially for women, in Christchurch. Suffrage leader Kate Sheppard, then in her forties, became a member and she and Bertha also served on the ACC committee. Christchurch did not view the ACC with approval; at times, the twins’ older brothers had to accompany the women cyclists to ward off stone-throwing spectators.
Women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wore very long skirts, which were not only difficult, but dangerous to wear while cycling. Many early lady cyclists had bad accidents when the hems of their skirts caught in the bicycle chain. A solution had to be found. Since decency, at that time, dictated that a woman’s legs had to be covered, many cyclists adopted a split-skirt. This was an adaptation of a garment designed by Mrs Amelia Bloomer, one of the pioneers of the Dress Reform Movement, in the mid nineteenth century. Mrs Bloomer was ridiculed when she and other women attempted to introduce healthier and more practical styles of clothing for women such as knickerbockers, or bloomers, for women engaged in active pastimes.
The split skirt gradually became acceptable as a cycling garment because it was designed to look like a regular skirt. The split skirt was further adapted over time. Later versions began to resemble trousers, never worn by European women before.
The Museum has in its collection a wonderful woman’s cycling costume, made in the 1890s. It is a smart and practical outfit for the new activity of cycling. The costume comprises a tailored jacket and divided cycling skirt, both made of dark charcoal wool twill, fully lined with heavy black silk. The costume was professionally fitted and sewn; there is no maker’s mark in either the jacket or the skirt. It’s in excellent condition; perhaps it wasn’t used very much.
By Libby Sharpe, Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.