Bicycle History: The Great Bloomer Controversy & the Anti-Bloomer Brigade and Anti-Dude League

Bloomers, bloomers, bloomers … they were all the rage for the freedom-seeking wheelwomen pedaling the streets of a nation struggling to come to grips with change. And the growing suffrage movement. Bloomers were a hot-button topic in the 1890s, the stuff of controversy … and cartoons.

The Brooklyn Citizen newspaper “is in favor of modified bloomers for women,” according to an October 25, 1893 story. However …

The trouble is that there are some women who go to the extremes. Our representative saw a sight last Sunday on the Boulevard that would disgust the most enthusiastic advocate of bloomers. On the porch … sat a female with tight pants, not bloomers (perhaps they belonged to her brother), low cut shoes and tight stockings.

Low-cut shoes? It seems showing some ankle was frowned upon. A glimpse of the lateral malleolus bone was known to drive many men wild with desire.

It was more of the same for British women, according to the November 18, 1893 edition of The Nottingham Guardian, which wrote that several women had written to the Daily Telegraph to express their disgust over the “shocking and painful spectacle” of women riding about in cycling costumes.

I contend that this proceeding is demoralizing, and calculated still further to lower the standard of man’s respect for women, now, alas, so marked a feature of the age in which we live … If it be illegal for a man to wear women’s attire in public, it is not equally so for a woman to assume that of a man?

Wow, woman-upon-woman, cycle-costume shaming. Not to mention the fact that there was a law outlawing cross-dressing. My posts about cycling history are all about the unusual, fascinating and funnier events. But now and again, all this frivolity merges with the some of the harsher realities of the times. I’ll focus on the more unusual bloomer-related stories in this post, after this brief message from the website of the National Women’s History Museum that sums up the bigger-picture importance of the bloomer and suffrage issues …

The bicycle, in many ways, came to embody the spirit of change and progress that the women’s rights movement sought to engender … Women soon found that the traditional dress of corsets, bustles, and long voluminous skirts impeded the supposed ease of bicycle travel … this prompted a change in women’s fashion including lighter skirts, bloomers (sometimes known as divided skirts), or even trousers to allow for a less cumbersome ride. 

A frantic finish

OK, back to the wacky, because, in many ways, these stories deliver the same message in a more easy-to-digest, funnier format. And humor can help make a point, as in George Carlin, Richard Pryor and the cartoon at the top of this post. This story from the September 23, 1894 Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York is well, you’ll see.

There was a series of bicycle races held in Louisville, Kentucky. The fifth and final race of the day featured an all-ladies lineup. Wearing bloomers. And then …

The people became frantic to see the women in bloomers, and acted disgracefully. It was a fine race except at the finish, when the spectators crowded into the track and the riders were thrown to the ground … Never before in Louisville had there been seen such a conglomeration of black-stockinged legs, torn bloomers, and broken bicycles, all mixed up indiscriminately with the surging crowd.

Ungallant remarks

Here’s a great “you get what you deserve story” from the July 23, 1895 Brooklyn Daily Eagle …

Jacob Huey [a South Carolina politician] went to Columbia and saw women in bloomers riding bicycles for the first time. He wrote a letter to a newspaper criticising the women, when their friends laid for him and pounded him the next time he appeared in the city. He apologized for his ungallant remarks.

Not guilty

Perhaps the tide was turning, in favor of bloomers. The New York Times, on August 26, 1895, included a story, from Little Rock, Arkansas, about the court case of a Mrs. Noe, who was arrested … for the crime of wearing bloomers while riding her bicycle in public. Judge Wilson ruled that …

Women have a constitutional and God-given right to ride a bicycle, and they are bound to have some comfortable and appropriate dress therfor … As it is, the case is dismissed at the city’s cost.

The anti-bloomer brigade meets its match

The young men of Edmeston, New York decided they needed to form an “anti-bloomer brigade,” according to the September 17, 1895 Evening World, New York. That’s what men did back then: Formed brigades to express their outrage over threats to their dominance. The poor saps of this brigade had no idea who they were dealing with, and the determined women of Edmeston formed an “anti-dude league” and pledged to …

… refrain from associating with young men who wear pink shirts with white collars … and pledge myself to the use of all honorable means for the suppression at all times of vealy young men of the dude class.

Vealy? It refers to young men who resembled a young calf, or big hunk of veal. Yeah, take that you vealy, dastardly dudes! And stop wearing those ridiculous pink shirts with white collars. You look silly.

Stay home and make my dinner

Here’s something from the March 14, 896 Evening Star of Washington, D.C. that illustrates what women were up against …

The fact cannot be disputed that no single factor of modern life is doing so much to degenerate our young womanhood as this mad race on the part of girls, impelled by necessity or not, to go into the business world.

Zimmy speaks out

The sport of cycling was huge in the 1890s, perhaps second only to “base ball” in popularity. The biggest cycling star of them all was Arthur “Zimmy” Zimmerman, the beloved world champion. And so, what Zimmy had to say on the subject of bloomers was news. Big news. According to the March 28, 1896 Evening Bee, Sacramento, California …

I have been asked what I think of bloomers. At the risk of producing a shock among my readers, I must say they seem to constitute the only rational costume for a woman when on a wheel … My ideas respecting bloomers were not so pronounced until I had been to Paris. The first day I was there I stood stock still for three hours in one spot on one of the boulevards, watching the women go by. There were thousands of them, and every one wearing bloomers. It was an inspiring spectacle.

Sign of the times

Let’s end with a tale of progress, from the July 9, 1897 edition of The Post-Crescent, Appleton, Wisconsin. A farmer named Randall, who lived and plowed near Stacyville, N.Y., had a bicycle track on one of his fields and put up a sign that read …

Miss Etta Thorne, with four other young women, all in bloomers, went out on the track the other day. The farmer ran up to them and said: “Ladies, unless you change your style of dress you can’t ride on this course.”

No heed was paid to this, and the farmer tried to intercept the riders. He rushed about till exhausted, and then seated himself on a rock, while the ladies continued to spin around at high speed. Finally, jumping to his feet, the farmer declared. “Riding in such costumes must cease at once. Do you understand me?”

The young women dismounted, and, gathering about the farmer, talked of the merits of bloomers until he agreed to remove the sign.

There you go, women wearing bloomers, on bikes, changing hearts and minds one farmer at a time. There were still millions more minds to change, and women did not win the right to vote until 1920. With the help of the wheel.

Here’s my previous post: Women on Wheels.

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