I recently flew to Los Angeles and used my direct, 5+ hour flight to finish Bike and Bloomers: Victorian Women Inventors and Their Extraordinary Cycle Wear, by Kat Jungnickel. If you are at all interested in women bicycling, women’s fashion, fashion history, sewing, and/or equal rights for women, read this book NOW!
There is so much to unpack and process before Kat even gets into the details of the women’s cycle fashion patents that she and her team recreate that I think that will be an entirely different blog post. But let me try to summarize: Victorian women as well as Victorian men were excited by the independence and exhilaration that the new sport “bicycling” presented. However, centuries of assumptions that women were frail, unmechanical, non-sporty, homemakers, only good for having babies, and that their lower limbs should *never* be seen, presented a challenge for those early adopter women who wanted to bike in public. Kat used diaries and newsletters as well as information from the patents themselves to illustrate the nerve that was required for women to attempt to cycle in late 1880s and 1890s Britain. In her first chapter, she quotes a letter from Kitty J. Buckman in 1897 in which Kitty, a cycling fan, says that “… one wants nerves of iron.” (page 11).I don’t doubt it – society then was much less used to norms being flaunted, unlike now when our choices are plentiful (although not always well-received). The choices faced by Victorian women when it came to cycling appear to have been: simply don’t; bike in corsets and long skirts; wear Rational Dress, the new and radical women’s fashion movement that rejected tight-laced corsets and layers of hoops and petticoats; or adapt or create something entirely new. Although some of the women Kat quotes in her book were comfortable in their Rational Dress, they recognized that not all women were. So they invented and patented outfits that made them look like ordinary Victorian women while biking safely (no long full skirts to get caught anywhere!), even while they were amazing, barrier-breaking wonder women.
This is the part where I get excited – I am totally inspired to make some Victorian women cyclist-inspired clothes. My long-time goal with sewing is to make clothing that works on the bike and in the office, without having to change upon arrival, without wearing spandex, and without looking “sporty.” Thankfully I live and bike in a time when I have choices – I can bike to work in gym clothes, traditional bike “kit” including padded shorts, a dress, jeans, skirts or whatever I like. That’s not to say that I won’t be judged for whatever I wear, because of course I will be – judging women based on their appearance is an international pastime now as it was then. But society has come to accept women in pants, jeans, and sports – even if we still have a long way to go, we can thank the women in Kat’s book for breaking down barriers for us.
[/caption]But back to sewing. Although there are plenty of examples of “the ideal lady cyclist” in bloomers and blazer, what I really love are all the skirts designed to allow “bifurcation,” ie, two separate pant legs. Women invented ways to quickly and creatively convert their skirts into something bike-friendly, then just as quickly back into something that looked socially acceptable to bystanders. This is something I complete understand, although I realize that not everyone does. I don’t want to look like a “cyclist,” I want to look like a normal person who happens to get around by bike.
Since culottes have been having a moment this year, mainstream stores from Ann Taylor to Anthropology have been showing wide-legged pants cropped at various lengths, and I love my culottes, I was pleased to see that some of the designs look like modern culottes. I first made Vogue 9091 because it looks like a skirt but is “bifurcated” (the word makes me giggle, I can’t say it with a straight face), which makes it perfect for me. I made my first pair in raspberry linen in 2015 and another pair in navy suiting gabardine the following year, and I wear them pretty frequently in the summer. Every time I wear them, I remember how much I love them.
[/caption]Since reading this book, I’ve been eyeing all the sewing patterns out there to make something a bit more “skirt” and a bit less “trousers,” and I think I recently found something that might be exactly what I want – the Megan Nielsen Tania pattern. This pattern offers not only different “skirt” lengths but two different fullnesses, so the sewist can pick how much like a skirt she wants her culottes to appear. And shortly after I became obsessed with this pattern, I saw that COS has an almost identical pair of culottes on their website! Guess I’ll be super chic when I make mine.
I like these other patterns as well – this is just a sample from the McCall Pattern Company family, but many other pattern companies have made culotte patterns as well. As much as I like these, I’m more obsessed with the Tania skirt-culotte style – it seems like more of a secret, don’t you think?
Although fall and cooler temperatures are on the way, I still want to make the Tania culottes. I think that out of a heavier yet still drapy fabric, maybe with a lining, they can still be a perfect office option – no one will know that my nice navy “skirt” is actually *pants* that allow me to easily swing my leg over my bike’s top tube and not crumple the fabric on that same piece of bike frame. Similarly to the way some Victorian women wished to appear that they were wearing skirts when they were off the bike, I too wish to appear to wear a skirt when I get off my bike. And now when I wear my culottes, and whatever else I feel like wearing when I ride my bike, I will think of those women who paved the way with their bike fashion patents, and sit up a bit straighter – no corset required.