Cycling Fashions

As I hoped she would, Frances Willard discusses the issue of women’s clothing, specifically, what women wear when they ride:

If women ride they must, when riding, dress more rationally than they have been wont to do. If they do this many prejudices as to what they may be allowed to wear will melt away. Reason will gain upon precedent, and ere long the comfortable, sensible, and artistic wardrobe of the rider will make the conventional style of women’s dress absurd to the eye and unendurable to the understanding. A reform often advances most rapidly by indirection. An ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory: and the graceful and becoming costume of woman on the bicycle will convince the world that has brushed aside the theories, no matter how well constructed, and the arguments, no matter how logical, of dress-reformers.

Hear, hear! I love the idea that the bicycle could be a driving force behind dress reform — and I love the idea of dress reform! As someone who will never, ever wear anything uncomfortable (no high heels for me, thank you very much!), I find 19C clothing for women fascinating, but absurd. Here is what Willard says about it:

A woman with bands hanging on her hips, and dress snug about the waist and chokingly tight at the throat, with heavily trimmed skirts dragging down the back and numerous folds heating the lower part of the spine, and with tight shoes, ought to be in agony. She ought to be as miserable as a stalwart man would be in the same plight. And the fact that she can coolly and complacently assert that her clothing is perfectly easy, and that she does not want anything more comfortable or convenient, is the most conclusive proof that she is altogether abnormal bodily, and not a little so in mind.

Oh, she makes me laugh. She’s a woman after my own heart, for sure. If I lived in the 19C, I’d be right there with her, wearing my sensible, comfortable clothing, whatever it was that would allow me to move about best. I do wonder if she would be shocked at the cycling clothing of today — all that close-fitting lycra and skin showing. Probably she would be shocked at first, but then perhaps, once she got used to our modern way of dressing, she’d see the sense in it.

The bicycle is capable of changing women’s fashions, and it’s also capable of advancing the cause of women’s equality (the “we” here refers to Willard and a friend; Willard is recounting a conversation they had):

We contended that whatever diminishes the sense of superiority in men makes them more manly, brotherly, and pleasant to have about; we felt sure that the bluff, the swagger, the bravado of young England in his teens would not outlive the complete mastery of the outdoor arts in which his sister is now successfully engaged. The old fables, myths, and follies associated with the idea of women’s incompetence to handle bat and oar, bridle and reign, and at last the cross-bar of the bicycle, are passing into contempt in presence of the nimbleness, agility, and skill of “that boy’s sister”; indeed, we felt that if she continued to improve after the fashion of the last decade her physical achievements will be such that it will become the pride of many a ruddy youth to be known as “that girl’s brother.”

Willard would be a staunch proponent of Title IX wouldn’t she? Her prediction in the last sentence has partly come true, as there many women and girls known for their athletic abilities, but I don’t think we’ve reached full equality when it comes to athletics — I don’t mean equality in terms of ability so much as that of opportunity and social acceptability. Those old “fables, myths, and follies” are still around.

If you’re interested in buying this book, don’t worry that I’m giving away all the good bits — there are plenty of great passages I haven’t quoted.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Nonfiction

9 responses to “Cycling Fashions

  1. I love her daring declaration that women who say all that clothing is perfectly comfortable are not quite right in body or head! It is unfortunate that women’s athletics still lags behind men’s. If only football didn’t hog up so much of the money at universities, women would have more opportunity and visibility in sports.


  2. I’m loving this, especially the part about diminishing the sense of male superiority. I sometimes think it’s more emprisoning of the human spirit than corsets ever were.


  3. She’s actually a bit of a feminist (before her time!) isn’t she! She sounds like someone I’d love to know. And I’m with you on avoiding those high heels!


  4. From the amusing pearls you’ve shared with us, I am quite certain the entire text of the book consists of quotable material.

    Yoshida Saori is our own local heroine. She picked up a gold medal for wrestling in Greece and I expect she will be in Beijing as well. I was sitting behind her brother at a special live viewing of the final match. He was indeed proud to be known as “that girl’s brother”.

    Everyone in town needed to tell me their connection: her mom is my tennis coach; I was her pediatrician; my son wrestled with her brother; … However, I was a little saddened by the folks that said, “She looks like a boy.” I think her short haircut robbed her of looking girlie, but she is definitely an attractive woman. I think lean and hard muscles still automatically get connected to looking like a man. Maybe in another hundred years…


  5. hepzibah

    This book sounds very interesting! And I like the cover too! It’s really nice when you can find an author that you immediately connect with, and I love that feeling!

    Happy Thanksgiving Dorothy! And to Hobgoblin and Muttboy 🙂


  6. Thank you Craig.

    Stefanie — I think you’re right to lay the blame on football — the way college athletics is set up doesn’t make any sense at all.

    Sylvia — I think you have a point — after all corsets are long gone, but the superiority thing? I’m not sure.

    Danielle — I’d definitely say she is a feminist; she worked to get women the vote and she also wrote so well about women’s freedom. She’s one of those 19C women who made 20C feminism possible.

    Bikkuri — yes, there’s plenty of good stuff I’m not quoting. It does seem like there are some women who get lots of praise and attention for athleticism like the woman you describe, but what about more everyday types of women athletes? And, yeah, it’s so easy to get labeled “masculine” if you’re an athletic woman.

    Hepzibah — yes, it’s fascinating! Happy Thanksgiving to you too 🙂


  7. “and not a little so in mind…” indeed! What a funny little book – I’ll have to go and check it out!


  8. Do check it out Amateurish! It’s an excellent book.


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