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Bikes & Bloomers

bloomersPart of the Transmissions and Entanglements project involves a new piece of research that explores inventive methods and alternate modes of knowledge exchange in ‘real time’.

Freedom of Movement: the bike, bloomer and female cyclist in late nineteenth century Britain (or Bikes & Bloomers) is a research project that seeks to understand what we wear to cycle, by thinking about what we have worn.

Victorians enthusiastically took to cycling. Yet women had to deal with many social, political and material challenges to their freedom of movement. Cycling in everyday dress was dangerous as it could catch in pedals and wheels. But it wasn’t necessarily safer to dress in more ‘rational’ attire, such as bloomers and shortened skirts, as onlookers sometimes hurled abuse and stones. This was because some parts of society felt threatened by this visual symbol of women carving out new modes of mobility in public space.

The research focuses on a very small period of British history – 1896 to 1899. This was a time of immense creative experimentation with radical new forms of clothing. A particularly inventive product of this period was the design of ‘convertible’ cycling costumes. These garments feature deliberately concealed technologies, such as weighted pulley systems engineered into the very infrastructure of dresses. These devices enabled women to adapt their garments from street wear to cycle wear when needed. Many of these women not only imagined and made new types of mobility clothing but they also patented their cutting-edge designs.

Underpinned by nearly three years of in-depth archive research and visual and inventive practice, this project brings to life five patents in rich detail. It interweaves analysis of design with stories about the inventors and analysis of the socio-cultural period. The book also uniquely documents the inventive research method of interpreting, sewing and wearing Victorian cycle wear. Struck by the absence of this ingenious period of invention in British museums and galleries, and in collaboration with a pattern cutter, weaver and artist, we made a collection of convertible costumes. Overall, the project makes a significant contribution to the history of British cycling by revealing fascinating lesser-known tales of women as ingenious inventors and hackers.