Mobility was what was new about the New Woman. She was ‘new’ because she had a greater opportunity to move in different spheres. Moving was not just referred to physical activity, and actually moving around as the ‘rational dress’ became more widespread. It also meant movement – therefore change – in women’s social roles and what was considered acceptable for them.
What was new about the New Woman and, therefore, what caused increasing alarm in the society she lived in was her mobility. Which implies change.
The New Woman moved away from the role of the ‘angel of the house’, the ethereal keeper of morality, the frail flower who needed protection, toward the role of a more aware, more involved woman who participated – and wanted to participate – in the social life of her nation. She moved away from the home to protest, demand the right to vote, and even participate in the war effort.
She moved away from invisibility to a strongly visible position.
She also became more physically active.
The dangers of the ‘irrational fashion’ finally became apparent for both men and women, just like the role germs played in illnesses and how Victorian fashion helped to spread them. And at the same time, doctors recognised the beneficial effects of being in the sun and being more active.
In the case of women, this involved a visible change. The way they dressed changed. They wore different, lighter garments. The ‘rational dress’ became mainstream. This caused a complete change in what was considered lady-like and what was acceptable for women in public, both in terms of clothes and behaviours. Ultimately, this caused the very ideal of feminine beauty to change.
Throughout her historical arc, the New Women was always about moving away from old concepts toward new, freer ones.Mobility (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) The New Woman was always about mobility. She was about getting out of the house and creating a new life for herself #Womenhistory Click To Tweet
The Victorian debate about the ‘rational dress’
Starting with the 1850s, people became vocal in asking for a change in the restrictive women’s fashion. Women’s dress reformers demanded a simplified fashion that would shed layers of clothes and lose some of the contraptions women wore to look fashionable, like crinolines, corsets and bustles. Some women even started to advocate the use of bifurcated garments, being them culottes, bloomers or knickerbockers.
Reformist groups – such as the English Rational Dress Movement or the American Rainy Day Club – called for more comfortable clothing, which they claimed to be healthier. These movements included businesswomen and other active members to whom a simplified fashion that allowed them to move more freely definitely made more sense.
But this entailed a totally new understanding of women’s role. Why did they want to be freer to move? Because they were going to university in higher numbers. They were taking up jobs out of the house more often. They were becoming professional and businesswomen, entering spaces previously only frequented by men.
‘More rational clothes’ often meant ‘adopting and appropriating men’s designs’, which wasn’t a great help to activists since it was considered a threat to male dominance.
Different tactics were adopted to dissuade women from doing so. The most common was insinuating that they would look ugly or ridiculous, especially when their demands went hand-in-hand with social reform. Women activists were often dabbed as ugly and masculinised.
Yet, reform did happen.
By the 1890s, as the Gibson Girl and her fashion emerged, women’s dresses had shed many layers. She had become more active and more socially engaged. Changes in women’s fashion brought about – and were brought about – by a bigger change that implied many different levels of mobility.
The liberating power of the bicycle
Bicycles appeared in the mid-19th century, and by the 1890s, they had assumed the form most familiar to us.
The incredible popularity of the bicycle starting from the 1890s is attributed to the introduction of the ‘safety bicycle’ in 1886, which presented two equalised wheels with air-filled rubber tires. The safety bicycle also included a dropped-frame design that accommodated women’s skirts while riding. This bicycle was easier to manoeuvre. It was lighter, more stable and could be ridden even with a skirt. Is it any wonder that women appropriated it?
Cycling was a new sport with no long-standing tradition or gender affiliation. Therefore there was no barrier for women to adopt it and claim dominance in it. Because cycling was indeed considered a sport, and because by the 1890s, women were encouraged to be more active to improve their health, cycling became not just an acceptable activity for women but an encouraged one.
This created some unexpected collateral effects.
- The bicycle gave women independence of movement. They could own their bicycle and go anywhere without asking for transportation or depending on anyone. They could even be unchaperoned.
- Unlike other sports for women, like swimming or tennis, which happened in, dedicated private places, cycling was a public activity. Women who cycled were visible in the street, and this made women, in general, more visible. The mobility of the cyclist was, of course, a potent symbol of the newfound mobility of women in all fields.
- Because of the peculiarity of the sport, dress reform became important again, leading to a partial acceptance of trousers as acceptable for women in peculiar circumstances. The divided skirt – which was indeed a pair of trousers but looked like a skirt – became acceptable when cycling and a huge advancement in the ‘rational dress’ reform.
Cycling did have a liberating effect on women and became a potent symbol of that liberation. The symbol of women’s mobility in the environment around her on all levels.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
“One needs to be very brave to stand all that”: Cycling, rational dress and the struggle for citizenship in late nineteenth century Britain by Katrina Jungnickel (PDF)
Elia Peattie, and Uncommon Writer, and Uncommon Woman – Bicycles, Bloomers, and the New Woman
OSU.Edu – Reforming Fashion, 1850-1914, Politics, Health and Art
Fashion History Museum – The Bicycle Bloomer Brouhaha of the 1890s
Warwick Library – Rational dress and the New Woman