Velocipede Fashions: A Steampunk Feminist Perspective

1870s Bicycle Outfit for a Woman

One of the great innovations of the Victorian era was the velocipede, the human-powered vehicle. With the advent of the motor vehicle, roads had to be maintained to a higher standard. Less horses meant less horse apples on the roads. This made conditions perfect for the introduction of the bicycle and all its cousins, the velocipede.

Man on a penny-farthing bicycle being chased by his sister (Maggie & Bob Spiers) - West Wyalong, NSW, Circa 1900, in the collection of the Museum of NSW.

Man on a penny-farthing bicycle being chased by his sister (Maggie & Bob Spiers) – West Wyalong, NSW, Circa 1900, in the collection of the Museum of NSW.

The Steam-powered Bicycle

The Steam-powered Bicycle

Riding a bicycle in skirts in awkward and even dangerous, since trailing hems might catch in the spokes or chains. As the popularity of velocipedes grew, their were several strategies to get around this. Machines were made to accommodate people wearing skirts, though none were truly successful. Some machines were designed for to occupants – suggesting that the couple riding should be one man in trousers who would do all the work. And … bicycle outfits were designed that didn’t have skirts.

Three women on velocipedes.

Three women on velocipedes; with their skirts obviously causing problems. (And the little doggie is about to get run over.)

Two person velocipede

Two person velocipede

Victorian Bicycling costume

Fashionable Victorian Bicycle Costume

Then, apart from the scandal of women in trousers, people feared that riding a bicycle or velocipede would give them ‘Bicycle face’. I kid you not. Just as people were going to suffocate if a steam engine went faster that 35 miles an hour, riding a bicycle had its own risks … the one one acquiring a rictus from the daily use of a bicycle.

I must suffer terribly from ‘car face’.

Joking aside, the bicycle offered a new freedom that even the working class could aspire to. It was certainly a boon to city women, because bicycles were light and manageable and affordable transportation. It gave them a taste for independence.

The earliest usable velocipede was created by Karl Dras, which he first rode in public on June 12, 1817. He obtained a patent in January 1818. It was made entirely of wood and was limited well-maintained pathways. Then the Michaux brothers created a company to mass produce their version of the velocipede. It ran from 1857 to 1871, and this vehicle was sometimes known as the boneshaker. The boneshaker was made entirely of wood at first, then later it was made with metal tires. Metal tires on cobblestone roads … no need to guess where that name originated from! As technology was applied to the development of velocipedes, more comfortable machines were developed, until the machine was an all metal frame with rubber tires like the bicycles of today.

While young men were risking their necks on the high wheels like Penny Farthings, sensible women preferred riding the tricycle. Tricycles of the late Victorian era often had well designed brakes and steering systems.

It was built by Rousseau of Marseilles, circa 1869. Image from Museum of Retrotechnology website.

It was built by Rousseau of Marseilles, circa 1869. Image from Museum of Retrotechnology website.

Image from the Just a Car Guy blogspot

pennyfarthingy

In this modern era, we usually only see bicycles. I think it is a great shame. The variation on the different type of velocipedes would have made for a quirky sight on the roads. As a Steampunk writer, I can match the velocipede to the character, knowing that a reckless boy would prefer a Penny Farthing over a tricycle or quad-cycle. It is another way to add to a characterization by showing, not telling.

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9 Comments

Filed under Fashion, Gadgets, History, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist

9 responses to “Velocipede Fashions: A Steampunk Feminist Perspective

  1. Just love all the pictures, showing real people using new inventions in everyday life! I really like the women’s bicycle costume! 🙂

  2. I’ve read (somewhere at some time in the past) that roads were improved for bicycles. When cars came along, they benefited from those better roads.

    • I guess it might have worked both ways, in different areas of the world. In my city, we even have a jail – no longer in use, now just a museum – called Boggo Road Jail, on Annerley Road. One end of this road used to be called Boggo Road, because every time it rained, every vehicle would get bogged, and as the area gentrified, its name was changed. Only the jail’s name remains to indicate how bad the road was at one time. The roads HAD to be fixed because the introduction of the heavier motor cars meant the roads were unusable half the time. (I live in a subtropical area, and it rains quite a bit.) Bicycles owners were among the first to benefit from the better roads.

  3. Pancho.

    I see no mention of saddle blush!

  4. Great article and pics. I have a velocipede in the book I am writing, and I have a female character steal it after she changes into her fencing costume because I knew there’d be no way to ride off into the sunset in a billowing skirt 🙂

  5. Josh

    Roads and city streets were paved for bicycle use at the behest of the Good Roads Movement, at a time when cyclists lobbies were a political force to be reckoned with. Heavy vehicles already existed and needed a strong road base, but wagon and carriages could tolerate very rough surfaces by using large wheels with iron rims. Bicycles needed smoother surfaces, leading to innovations such as crushed stone, macadam, and later tar macadam (what today we’d call tarmac or asphalt.)

    The development of smooth roads made private passenger cars feasible. Motor vehicles had been tried before, but could never compete with the versatility and adaptability of horses or oxen. The modern bicycle changed that, with thousands of bicycle mechanics becoming inventors pursuing the self-propelled vehicle in the 1890s. Henry Ford, for example, got his start in bicycles, as did the Wright Brothers.

    If you look at the advertising of the time, you’ll see bicycle companies also pioneered the use of nearly naked ladies to promote fast vehicles, outrageous by standards of just a few decades before.

    • They used nearly naked ladies to market their vehicles? Some things never change then.
      Thank you, Josh, for this informative comment. Indeed, would you prefer to give this information a more central arena? Would you like to do a guest blog on this topic?

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