To what extent are technology, fashion, and social reform interconnected?
- What technological developments made bicycling more accessible to women?
- How did the bicycle craze of the 1890s affect women in the United States?
- What were the different public reactions to women who adopted “rational dress” and/or took up cycling in the 1890s?
- Did the invention of the bicycle lead to social reform or was the bicycle an outlet for already-changing norms?
Things you will need to teach this lesson.
Although the legal case in question was heard in England, it was covered on the front page of this newspaper from New Haven, Connecticut.
Download a pdf of the quote.
1) As a short introduction, start by displaying the image(s) of the 1870-75 walking dress. Have students make observations, always backing up their comments with evidence they can see (e.g. “What do you see that makes you say this dress is fancy?” “The lace and the silk fabric.”) Then ask for reflections based on what they see—what they think about the woman who might have worn a dress like this and what her life might have been like. If it does not come up in discussion, you may want to prompt with the question of whether this kind of “walking dress” would be practical for what today we might consider an “active lifestyle.”
2) Next, break the class into two groups, having each group examine one of the patent documents, either online or in hard copy. Have students determine the who, what, where, when, how, and why of each patent, including what problem the patent-seeker was trying to solve. Have one or two representatives from each group present their patent briefly to the other half of the class.
Together as a group, ask students to share their thoughts or questions regarding the patents and how they might connect to the time period in general.
3) Next, display or distribute the three photographs showing Connecticut women and their bicycles. Using the Library of Congress Analyzing Photographs & Prints process, ask students to observe, reflect, and question. What clues do these images give us about the role of the bicycle in these women’s lives?
4) Together as a class, examine and discuss the satirical illustration from Puck and the “Suit over Bloomers” article. Use evidence from these sources, as well as the earlier sources, to address the supporting question: What were the different public reactions to women who adopted “rational dress” and/or took up cycling in the 1890s?
5) Conclude the activity by displaying or reading out loud the excerpt from journalist Nellie Bly’s interview with Susan B. Anthony in 1896 (pdf of the quote above).
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling… I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent.”
“And bloomers?” I suggested, quietly.
“Are the proper thing for wheeling,” added Miss Anthony promptly. “It is as I have said — dress to suit the occasion. A woman doesn’t want skirts and flimsy lace to catch in the wheel. Safety, as well as modesty, demands bloomers or extremely short skirts. You know women only wear foolish articles of dress to please men’s eyes anyway.”
Discuss students’ reactions to these statements, coming from one of the best-known leaders of the women’s rights movement at the time.
- Imagining themselves in the 1890s, students will design a full-page newspaper advertisement for bicycles (or bicycle clothing) targeted—at least in part—to women. They should draw on some of the persuasive imagery or ideas from the primary sources examined. To expand students’ background knowledge, you may wish to have them read some additional writings about women and bicycling from the time (see “Things to Do,” below).
- Students will conduct online research using newspapers, periodicals, or secondary sources to compare the reaction to the “rational dress” movement in the 1890s to that of other “controversial” fashion issues in later history: miniskirts in the 1960s, changing styles of sportswear for women, school uniform requirements, t-shirts and free speech, etc.
- Students will create a timeline of the women’s rights movement in the United States, starting with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and continuing to the present. The timeline should incorporate relevant technological and fashion innovations, as well as other political and social events and landmarks.