A few days ago I went to an exhibit called Voyages a Velo which traces the history of cycling in Paris. There were velocipedes on display from the early 19th century and other early bikes that didn’t have chains or inflatable wheels.
Most of the exhibit was dedicated to documenting the evolution of bicycle culture and fashion. There were dozens of vintage posters advertising bicycles, races, and cycling fashions. Cycling has been a part of French culture for a very long time. Peugeot, now one of the biggest automobile manufactures in France, actually got its start manufacturing bicycles.
What I enjoyed most about the exhibit was seeing the progression of women on bicycles. French women started cycling over a hundred years ago and the question of how to look good while pedaling comfortably was on their minds too. In some cases it seems that they just wore their usual full skirts while biking (not having a chain would make this significantly easier), but I was also excited to see bloomers at the exhibit.
Mainly I was excited because they reminded me of one of my favorite childhood books about a young girl living in late 19th century America who turned her full skirt into bloomers and then was able to experience the joys of riding a bicycle. (I must have been destined for Wellesley College from a young age.) Bicycles—and the clothes women wore on bicycles—played a part in the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. In order for women to enjoy the freedom a bicycle offered they couldn’t really get by wearing traditional full skirts. Bloomers were only worn by bold women at first—typically the one’s also involved in the suffrage movement called “New Women.” “The New Woman was the term used to describe the modern woman who broke with convention by working outside the home, or eschewed the traditional role of wife and mother, or became politically active in the woman’s suffrage movement or other social issues. The New Woman saw herself as the equal of men and the bicycle helped her assert herself as such.” 1
It’s interesting that now there is a movement of women trying to make biking in skirts, dresses, and heels the new social norm. I thought I’d share another cool cycling blog I enjoy called Let’s Go Ride a Bike. It’s written by two women in the Midwest who both bike commute and just try to look normal and nice while they do it. Here is a recent post they did about the best skirts to wear while biking. A tip I learned in Amsterdam about biking in a flowing summer skirt is to carry a clothespin with you so you can gather and secure some of the fabric and thus avoid flashing people. Skinny jeans are also great to bike in. I’m a fan of “jeggings” which are mostly made of spandex and dry quickly, but still look like jeans. Outlier, also makes some fancy biking pants for women and I’ve heard good things about their other products—which are mostly for men. Anyway, it’s not about the gear! But, it helps to get a few tips—and maybe a few new clothing items—so that you’re comfortable. I had no idea what to wear when I first started bike commuting and slowly learned that I didn’t need to don a racing jersey to go the four miles downtown.
Lastly, if you don’t believe me that bicycles are becoming the hottest accessory in the world’s hippest cities, just check out this gorgeous Kate Spade bike.
Are bicycles with baskets becoming the new oversized handbags? Biking makes sense for so many reasons—and I don’t think increased cycling rates in cities throughout the world are just a passing trend—but I’ll certainly accept the extra style points my bicycle gives me here in Paris. Even though my Kona isn’t nearly as adorable as that Kate Spade bike…