A Passion for Nature: Ladies & the Great Outdoors

March is Women’s History Month, which serves as a commemoration of how far women have advanced in terms of equality and a celebration of the vital role of women in American history.

By the end of the 19th century, women’s social status had improved, their legal rights were increasing and the scope of acceptable activities was expanding. There was more leisure time, travel was easier thanks to improved transportation (notably railways) and outdoor activities for women were popular.

While there was no “sportswear” for women as we know it today, most women remained conscious of being dressed appropriately for the different activities. Small changes to existing styles provided practical clothing for golf, hiking, lawn tennis, seaside bathing, horse-back riding or bicycling. Sporting clothes followed the tailored, rationality of menswear with simpler cuts to jackets, blouses and skirts, use of lighter weight fabrics and far less decoration on garments.

In the later years of the 19th century, horse-back riding had become an activity available to more people – not just a pastime of the wealthy. However, women riders were still expected to adhere to decorum by wearing a skirt and using a side saddle, a special saddle where she sat with both legs on the left side of the horse and not astride as men would ride.

Her draped skirt, worn with a tailored jacket, actually covered matching trousers and boots similar to those worn by men riders. As proper as this position was deemed to be for a lady, it was neither safe, throwing off her center of balance, nor healthful, causing an unnatural curve to her spine.

Popularity of Cycling

When the “safety bicycle” was developed around 1890, men and women took it for a spin and embraced the improved, better balanced and smoother riding vehicle. Cycling became a popular and acceptable means of travel and recreation for women. And it obviously allowed only one possible position for the rider – astride, the same as a man – thus making a small inroad towards women’s equality.

Now that she had this new sense of freedom, what would she wear to be fashionable, safe and modest when cycling? In the 1850s, Amelia Jenks Bloomer made a type of Turkish trousers that were loose, full pants gathered at the ankles. She and the few women who adopted the style advocated women’s dress reform, but were met by ridicule; the idea of trousers for women at this time was unthinkable. Several decades later the bloomers re-appeared as specialized clothing that was more suitable for riding a bicycle than the long, full skirts whose hems could become entangled in the gears and wheels. Less daring women chose the divided skirt – calf-length, with pleats in the center front and back to discreetly cover the full trouser-like under layer. Her legs and ankles were modestly covered by boots or gaiters (covers made of leather or cloth that buttoned or buckled around her calf).

The gray linen divided-skirt and jacket costume is a reproduction based on a turn of the 20th century description found in American Dress Pattern Catalogs, 1873-1909 (Dover Publication). Maymont staff and volunteers made the ensemble using patterns by Truly Victorian: the 1896 Ripple Jacket and 1901 Split Skirt. Although the skirt is divided, the pleats and fullness give the appearance of being a regular skirt. Buttons in the center front hide the divided skirt when standing, while unbuttoning some of them allowed freedom of movement for pedaling. Shortening the skirt by a couple of inches keeps it from catching in the gears and wheels and protects it from picking up the dust from the open road.

The large sleeves on the fitted jacket were fashionable in the mid-1890s and gave the wearer the coveted hourglass figure. Red trim on the lapels, cuffs and fasteners is a stylish touch, while the small boater hat, secured on her upswept hair, is a practical accessory.

By 1894 it was estimated there were 40,000 “wheel women” in the U.S.

This post was written by Nancy Lowden, Manager of Historical Programs at Maymont.