Madness Monday: Clothes Make the Man- er, Woman!

Bicycle Dress Reform. The Pacific Unitarian, Vol. 6, No. 5, Page 129. March, 1898, San Francisco, California, via GoogleBooks.
Bicycle Dress Reform. The Pacific Unitarian, Vol. 6, No. 5, Page 129. March, 1898, San Francisco, California, via GoogleBooks.

Payne Family (Click for Family Tree)

For generations reformers tried to get women to trade in their restrictive Victorian clothing for looser garb. The madness of tight corsets that moved bones and internal organs, long dresses that carried the filth of streets filled with excrement of horses and chamber pot contents thrown out a window, big heavy hats that compressed women’s neck bones from the weight, multiple layers that overheated women in the days before air conditioning, etc., made movement for women challenging. No manner of  logic, cajoling, or even science was enough for the ‘modern’ woman to not follow the whims of fashion and the required-by-polite-society need for modesty.

Bicycles changed all that! Women would not ride very far if they could not breathe deeply due to a corset, or if their long skirt got caught in the spokes of the wheels. Those huge, heavy, unsymmetrical hats would definitely put them off balance too.

Bicycles were a great form of exercise, and a way for women to have a bit of freedom. The author of this piece suggests that the bicycle was the biggest influence on women deciding to wear clothes that offered more comfort and “larger freedom of action.” Her conclusion was that this change would bring to women a “life of higher opportunity and realization.” (Love that.)

There was most probably a wealth of causes for these changes, including the women’s suffrage movement. The bicycle surely did play a part, though there was one article in an old newspaper that stated women who rode bicycles were actually prostitutes going off to visit their customers! Casting aspersions on a woman’s reputation was definitely a way to keep most from taking advantage of newfound freedoms.

At least one of our ancestors, Lynette Payne, had the courage to ride a bicycle and she even wore bloomers! She is said to have been the first woman in Newton, Iowa, to ride the new contraption, and Lynette was a suffragist as well.

Lynette Payne, December 1909, wearing a purple and lavender silk dress.
Lynette Payne, December 1909, wearing a purple and lavender silk dress.

Lynette had grown up in liberal Berkeley, California, and many commented on her sophistication after she moved to small Newton, Iowa. Sure wish that we had more photos of Lynette in those early years- would really love to see her on her bicycle! Pure madness, indeed.


Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. Bicycle Dress Reform. The Pacific Unitarian, Vol. 6, No. 5, Page 129. March, 1898, San Francisco, California, via GoogleBooks.
  2. Victorian clothing and its dangers are discussed in the BBC’s “Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home.” Thankful that corsets are no longer required…
    The BBC also made “Hidden Killers” episodes for the Tudor ( and Edwardian ( eras. The Tudor episode discusses death by drowning (40% of Tudor deaths), including the weight of women’s clothing once wet that often led to drowning.
  3. Maureen Taylor, “The Photo Detective” has a number of books that show clothing from various eras to aid in photo identification, including two coloring books: Victorian Hats: A Coloring Book, and Coloring the Past: the 1860s. Her books are available on her website,, or on Amazon. She also has a blog at Maureen’s classes and webinars are wonderful as well if you are interested in old photos or vintage clothing.
  4. Family photo of Lynette (Payne) McMurray.


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