What do bloomers and bicycles have in common?
While today’s models parade the catwalk in panties and other underwear, this would have been unthinkable in the 1800s. So too would the wearing of panties themselves.
Today’s panties originated from the various “bifurcated” undergarments known popularly in the 19th century as bloomers, knickers, drawers, pantaloons and pantalettes.
Each was based on a design in which the legs were separated by cloth in between. Prior to the invention of such bifurcated undergarments women wore a variety of skirt-like undergarments (sometimes in combination) known as petticoats and crinolines.
Drawers first appeared in England around 1825, to the chagrin of some who called them “an abominable invention which produces disorders in abundance” . They were trouser style with a drawstring waist and open at the crotch.
Pantaloons, later called pantalettes, were also introduced at this time. They were generally lacier and frillier, meant to be seen peeking from the edges of a woman’s skirts.
Each of these styles enjoyed popularity through the mid-1800s, although a continuing preference for crinolines and petticoats existed among many women. Part of this continuing preference for skirts can be attributed to various women’s emancipation movements. It was important not to wear clothing that was considered too radical for the time lest it overshadow more important concerns, such as the right to vote, right to divorce and the right to property ownership. Yet many other women strongly advocated bifurcated garments (both as underwear and later as outerwear).
One such woman was Amelia Bloomer. She was a strong advocate of the 19th century women’s movement and the editor of a reform newspaper known as The Lily . Bloomer’s name will remain in history for a garment that she and Elizabeth Stanton, another member of the reform movement, first wore in 1851 in the USA, It was simply described as a knee-length dress over a pair of caftan-style pants (known as Turkish Trowsers) inspired by the Orientalist movement.
Women’s trousers, and the wide-spread use of bifurcated garments for women in general, did not re-surface on a wide scale until the end of the nineteenth century. What really launched the second wave of such garments into the limelight, not only as underwear but also as outerwear (in the form of trousers or split skirts) was something completely unrelated to fashion and politics—the invention of the bicycle.
Although the bicycle was first invented in 1817, it did not gain popularity until the late 1870s and early 1880s . Even so, it was most popular among men. In fact, the design of the first bicycles was such that it was nearly impossible to ride one while wearing a long skirt. In the 1890s bicycles for men and women emerged, while at the same time, trousers were also gaining popularity as a “sport” dress to accommodate women who rode both women’s and men’s bicycles.
Although both bloomers and bicycles were gaining popularity for women by the late nineteenth century, for some they were a dangerous combination. Many opposed both bicycling and bloomer-wearing on the bases of morality and a concern for the public good. For example, some opponents believed that by wearing “male dress” (i.e., bifurcated garments) women would adopt other masculine traits, such as the desire for other women. In other words, there was a fear that such reform dress would transform women into lesbians—”the unforgivable sin” in the conservative, heterosexual circles of the Victorian era. Another concern was that bicycling, a sport that required one to leave the safe environs of one’s home, would lead women to immodesty, promiscuity and insatiable sexual desire.
The independent mobility of women cyclists raised genuine alarm for their physical, if not moral, safety; the bicycle could easily take women to unsavoury places where they might be endangered physically (for example, by being attacked), or morally (for example, by being seduced into imprudent conduct with intemperate company). Drawing on previous knowledge of the kinds of women who deliberately made themselves conspicuous in public, that is, prostitutes, there would be a strong tendency to conclude that cycling women were far from respectable: not exactly prostitutes, perhaps, but possibly women of loose morals or with an undeveloped sense of propriety.
Much of the debate about morality, bicycles and “bloomerism” (a popular term at the time) centered around the morality of middle-class women. What gave bloomers and bicycles their most significant endorsement was their adoption by aristocrats. In the late 1890s, Queen Victoria was reported as riding a tricycle (another variation of the bicycle, made for adults) and giving her daughters bicycles to ride.