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  • Jonathan Walford

The Bicycle Bloomer Brouhaha of the 1890s


In 1851, American Amelia Bloomer published an article in her newspaper The Lily calling for dress reform. She, and her group of supporters adopted calf-length skirts over full cut ‘Turkish trousers’. The style received some acceptance and lots of ridicule – and although the style never went mainstream, the full-cut trousers became known as ‘bloomers’ and was soon used to describe divided underpants, as well as a costume in wool worn for gymnastic exercise. With a better understanding of the connection between exercise and health, many women took up sports activities during the 19th century including lawn games like badminton, croquet and tennis, as well as calisthenics, sea bathing – and bicycling.


Le Chalet du Cycle, Jean Beraud, 1895


Lady Florence Harberton, president of the Rational Dress Society, which she had co-founded in London in 1881, became a keen cyclist and advocated the adoption of divided skirts, or bloomer costumes for the activity. However, in October 1898 Lady Harberton was refused service at the Hautboy Hotel by the owner, Mrs Martha Sprague, because she was wearing her Bloomer cycling costume. There had been an agreement with Lady Harberton’s Cyclists’ Touring Club to be served in the coffee-room, but Mrs. Sprague denied her entry, insisting she go to the bar, where working men smoked and drank. Lady Harberton brought action against Mrs Sprague in April 1899 on the grounds that she was obliged by law to honour the agreement between the cycling club and hotel and not discriminate by not offering service to anyone based on their dress. In her defense, Mrs Sprague insisted she had not refused Lady Harberton service, only directed her to another room because she had not allowed women without skirts into the coffee-room. The judge ordered the jury to address the issue of service, not dress, and after a short deliberation, the jury found in favour of Mrs. Sprague.


Canada too was caught up in the controversy. In Victoria, B.C. in 1895, it had been declared by the police that “bloomers are not suitable for ladies’ street wear, even when worn as a bicycling costume”. Ethel Delmont, nonetheless, wore her bloomers for a ride about town, and received a warning from the police that “a repetition of her appearance in that costume would mean a court summons.”


The mirror was the harshest critic for many women who saw bloomers as ungraceful and too masculine. Mrs. Reginald de Koven wrote in an August 1895 article ‘Bicycling for Women’, in The Cosmopolitan magazine: “The question of the proper dress for bicycling is still in doubt. In smaller cities like Cleveland, Buffalo, and notably in Chicago and Boston, the bloomer costume has been largely used. This tendency must be deprecated.” Mrs de Koven advocated a shorter skirt be worn over knickerbockers (closer fitting than bloomers) to avoid the “enormous loss of the gracefulness which every woman should religiously consider.”


In 1897 F. J. Erskine, English author of Lady Cycling: What to Wear & How to Ride, advocated the environment dictated what was suitable attire. A skirt might be more appropriate for a dry summer day in town, but knickerbockers were essential for a long tour in the countryside. The debate died down by 1900 by which time most female cyclists had adopted calf length boots and paired them with shorter ankle-to-calf length (sometimes divided) skirts.

American patent specs of a design for bloomers under a divided skirt, 1896

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