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Rational dress and the New Woman

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the bicycle became one of the key symbols of the New Woman. In contrast to the stereotypical image of gentile Victorian femininity - upright, tightly corseted, surrounded by skirts, doing a little light needlework, and possibly swooning on to a chaise longue at moments of mild stress - the New Woman was usually seen as young, active and fit, dressed in 'masculine' rational dress (trousers or divided skirts - garments which shockingly revealed the existence of legs), and independent - able to travel alone, leaving the man at home to do the housework or manage the children. The New Woman, and the independence symbolised by the bicycle, became linked with the broader idea of women's rights and the fight for equality with men, including the suffrage movement.

Although the New Woman in rational dress became a widely used symbol, in reality the majority of female cyclists in the 1890s continued to wear less practical but more socially acceptable long skirts whilst cycling. Women who dared to wear bloomers or other forms of trousers were denounced from the pulpit for going against Biblical teaching, and ran the risk of being barred from hotels or verbally abused.

The images reproduced here include photographs and other illustrations of women in rational dress, articles on the benefits of the costume, and comments on the perceived connection between the bicycle and the broader movement for women's independence.