Last Updated on February 11, 2023 by Dominique de Merteuil
Vintage Outfit Ideas For a Bicycle Ride
In this post, you will learn how to dress in vintage for a bicycle ride. The almost practical guide to looking glamorous on a bicycle.
People often ask me if wearing vintage clothes every day prohibits me from doing certain activities. The answer to this is no, but as the question of riding a bicycle dressed in vintage clothes has come up more than on a few occasions, I thought I’d take the opportunity and expand upon this question with an article about how to dress in vintage for a bicycle ride.
I also decided to test if the saying that something is like riding a bike applies to actual bike riding. I haven’t ridden one since I was 12, so all in all, it will make for an exciting experiment.
DISCLOSURE: As of October 2021, I’m part of an affiliate program, and I get a small commission for purchases made through the Shop My Favourites links in this post. That’s how I keep my website alive, for which I’m very grateful to you. All opinions expressed here are mine!
The Must-Haves for a Bicycle Ride in Vintage Style
The picture you see below is the reason why I included pretty undergarments on the list of must-have items for riding a bicycle dressed in vintage. Suffice it to say, I didn’t predict the wind blowing my skirt up and revealing the pink 1940s CC41 knickers to the world.
Thankfully, I’m a true believer that what’s underneath counts, and I always wear beauteous lingerie. Also, this is probably the only picture in existence where you see me laugh. Let’s face it, I’m the most (un)graceful rider. The writers behind “The Lady Cyclist” weekly magazine popular in 1896 would not be amused by my lack of decorum.
They would probably advocate the use of the Fixit Dress Holder or some other ingenious invention dating back to the 19th century.
Vintage outfit idea for a bicycle ride around town.
- In the picture, I’m wearing a 1940s skirt suit
- Spitz saddle shoes
- 1940s CC41 knickers
The beautiful bicycle is the Bisou model from Tokyobike in Desert Yellow.
Must-have Accessories for Riding a Bike Dressed in Vintage
- Every lady needs a pair of gloves.
- Silk knickers or a slip in case the wind blows up your skirt.
- Skirt guards for the bicycle.
- Comfortable but beauteous shoes.
- Hat matching your ensemble and hatpins to keep it from flying away.
- Snood or a scarf to keep your hair from the wind’s harmful ways if you don’t like to wear a hat.
- Anything but ordinary socks.
- (Optional) Basket for the baguette, flowers and whatnot.
- A vintage-inspired bicycle from Tokyobike.
- A sunblock cream, to protect your beautiful skin, from my favourite cosmetic brand Dr Irena Eris.
How to dress in vintage for a bicycle ride! In my 1940s Handmacher suit paired with French Sole slippers at the Tokyobike shop in Warsaw!
Obviously, you should only ever choose to wear what suits you and makes you feel comfortable.
Pictures & Illustrations of Bicycle Clothing in the 19th century
Before I jump to the part revealing the 1930s and 1940s outfits I chose for my bike ride around town, I would like to show you through pictures and illustrations how cycling wear for women evolved from a dangerous sweeping skirt and restrictive corset to the very liberal approach to sportswear in the 1950s and beyond. Although, if you are reading and enjoying my blog, I doubt you are interested in post-1950s fashions, so perhaps I will stop at the 1940s.
If you believe that riding a bike in a 1940s suit or a 1930 dress might be a challenge, let me take you on a journey back to the second half of the 1800s.
Cycling suit 1896. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. History of bicycle clothing.
Cycling suit 1896. A bifurcated divided skirt gave the modest appearance of a skirt at the front.
Women’s Cycle Wear in the 19th Century
Have you ever seen pictures, dating back to the 19th century, of women on bicycles and wondered how they managed to ride a bike wearing a corset and a long skirt? What you see in the photographs below is what was considered a “short” skirt in the 1890s. Yes, your eyes do not deceive you.
The skirts depicted in “Tygodnik Mod i Powiesci” illustrations from 1896 are at least four inches shorter than the modesty required for a leisurely stroll.
*As a side note, I would like to add that I’m using the term woman instead of a lady because according to the British and American press at the time, ladies did not ride a bicycle. They were referred to as women or females.
The footwear is visible, but the spats are covering up the exposed part of the leg to avoid shocking a passerby by showing too much skin. Imagine that!
We might find it amusing to learn that it was once considered inappropriate and immodest attire. Womenswear, particularly sportswear, has come a long way from the ridiculously uncomfortable and prudish fashion to a very revealing one in 2022. Nowadays, an outfit exposing legs, the midriff, and even the derrière, leaves little for the imagination, and it doesn’t cause as much as a raised eyebrow. I, however, draw the line at shorts with pockets longer than the actual garment.
Modesty in the 1890s
In the 1890s, when modesty was of the utmost importance, the most popular outfit for an active young woman was a shirtwaist blouse, one of the few mass-produced garments of the 19 century, paired with a long skirt. It was an (im)practical and comfortable (?) ensemble for everyday activities, including cycling, the biggest fad in the late 19th century.
There were limits to the comfort because the corset remained an integral part of the ensemble. However, slight modifications of the traditional steel-boned corset allowed the wearer more freedom of movement.
The road to comfortable cycling attire was a long one. We can thank the female college students who so eagerly participated in many different types of sports, for the sportswear to become more comfortable and acceptable. Let’s start our story with the invention of Bloomers.
The invention of Bloomer
Definition of Bloomers.
A name given to young women who imitated the American Mrs Amelia Bloomer in wearing a modified form of trousers below a knee-length, full skirt. “A young lady of a certain age – an ardent Bloomer” (1853, Surtees, Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour). The outfit, called Bloomer costume or Bloomer dress, was also implied.
Period: 1890 onwards.
Name given to the baggy knickerbockers worn by some women cyclists and also, to loose, knee-length underpants.
The Dictionary of Fashion History by Valerie Cumming, C. W. Cunnington and P. E. Cunnington
19th-Century Fashion Facts
- Despite popular belief, the bicycle bloomer was not wildly accepted by society. During my research, I came across many articles published in the second half of the 19th century that mocked the unfeminine fashion unworthy of a self-respected lady.
- Amelia Bloomer was not the inventor of bloomers, but she loved wearing them. Bloomer wrote about them in 1851 in “The Lily” publication, which is why this particular attire will forever be associated with her name.
- Bloomer admitted to having seen the “freedom dress”, later known as the “bloomer”, on her neighbour Elizabeth Stanton and her cousin Libby Miller.
- The freedom dress consisted of a short skirt that fell just below the knees and baggy trousers resembling in style that of Turkish trousers and made of the same fabric as the skirt. According to Amelia Bloomer, neither she nor Miller or Stanton wore the attire to introduce a dress reform or force it upon other women. They wore the “freedom dress” because it was convenient and comfortable.
- The Rational Dress Society was established in 1881 in England with Viscountess Harberton as the President and Dr Frances Hoggan and Dr Agnes McLaren acting as the Reference Committee. To quote one of their rules,
The objects of the Society shall be to promote the adaptation, according to individual taste and convenience, of a style of dress based upon consideration of health, comfort, and beauty, and to deprecate constant changes of fashion, which cannot be recommended on any of these grounds.
- In 1884 Viscountess Harberton published a pamphlet, Reasons for reform in dress, where she encouraged women to wear a ‘short’ divided skirt instead of an impractical long one that was difficult to walk in and often the cause of a lot of accidents.
*You can read more about it in; Viscountess Harberton, Reasons for reform in a dress. British Library General Reference Collection 7745. bb.6
Bloomers in the Press
- Bloomers, and other forms of trousers for women, had a lot of negative press. Even popular fashion magazines that often published the latest trends in cycling made it very clear that bloomers ought to be worn and hidden under the skirt so as not to show at all.
- For those ladies who opposed the notion of wearing bloomers, a skirt guard came to the rescue. At least in theory, because I found many articles that claimed the skirt guards to be rather useless.
- Divided skirts were another option, and with the growing popularity of cycling amongst college girls, the riding costume became a must. And with the passing time and habits of the modern woman, the cycling dress became less conservative and more adequate for sports activity.
Cycling ensemble from 1900.
Riding a Bicycle in the 19th Century Required Nerves of Steel
Kat Jungnickel in her brilliant book entitled “Bikes and Bloomers-Victorian Women Inventors and their Extraordinary Cycle Wear ” quoted Kitty J. Buckman who wrote in her letter to Uriah on August 23, 1897
Minnie says ‘Oxford is the most begotted place in the world kingdom and the meeting is likely to raise a great protest in the papers which will deter followers’. It certainly cannot be worse to ride in Oxford than in London, especially London suburbs. It’s awful – one wants nerves of iron. The shouts and yells of the children deafen one, the women shriek with laughter or groan and hiss and all sorts of remarks are shouted at one, occasionally some not fit for publication. One needs to be very brave to stand all that. It makes one feel mad and ones ideas of humanity at large sink to a very low standard. When one gets out into the country there is little trouble beyond an occasional shout, but it takes some time to get away from these miles of suburban dwellings.
The quote illustrates perfectly the brutal reality of women riding a bike in the 19th century.
*The New Woman wheeled her way to the 20th century.
The Invention of the Modern Bicycle.
The modern bicycle as we know it would not be possible had it not been for: Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization of rubber, patented in 1844, and John Boyd Dunlop’s pneumonic tire invented in 1888.
Thanks to the British inventor John Kemp Starley and his Rover safety bicycle with its chain drive and equal-sized wheels, cycling became popular amongst both men and women. The dropped frame allowed the fair sex to enjoy the ride in a long skirt.
The craze for bicycles came at a price. By the late 1890s, the bike manufacturers were prolific with their advertising that appeared everywhere. And like their clothes, the dandies and quaintrelles wanted the most fashionable and expensive bicycle they could find.
* “Women should not cycle because of hygienic and esthetic reasons.”
During my research on women cyclists in the 19th century, I stumbled across an amusing article entitled ‘Bicycle Before the Court’ published in 1896, in a Polish weekly magazine “Tygodnik Mod i Powiesci.” At least a dozen doctors expressed their strong opinions before the court about the effects of cycling on health. Some were pro and others against the new leisure activity.
Dr Mendelson testified in Berlin court that cycling harmed the health and should be banned. Mendelsohn recommended rowing instead. Dr Tiburtius, on the other hand, a big fan of cycling, disagreed with his colleague. Another doctor noted that there was an increase in deaths caused by cycling. Dr Furbinger compared cycling with mountain hiking and believed everything should be allowed in moderation. The only point with which all the doctors agreed was that women should not cycle because of hygienic and aesthetic reasons.
And on that note, I’m leaving the 19th century behind and jumping to the main topic of this blog post. How to dress in vintage for a bicycle ride!
History of the Cycle Wear-My Reading Recommendations
- “Bikes and Bloomer-Victorian Women Inventors and their Extraordinary Cycle Wear.” Kat Jungnickel
- “When the Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportwear.” Patricia Campbell Warner
Hollywood Stars on a Bicycle- The Ideal Lady Cyclist
There was a time when women who wore trousers in public received a lot of backlash for what seemed to be an inappropriate outfit choice. And yes, there was the Hollywood exception, of course, such as in the case of Marlene Dietrich, who loved to shock, or Katharine Hepburn, who wore trousers for comfort, and she wore them well. You can see for yourself in the Trousers a la Katharine Hepburn article.
It was none other than the Hollywood stars who set fashion trends, even if it was unintentional. I have to wonder if wearing trousers, shorts or sportswear out in public would have been so wildly accepted had it not been for the movie stars.
Eventually, practicality and comfort won over the need to look glamorous on a bicycle. Although, if we look at pictures from the 1940s and the 1950s of women riding a bike, their immaculate hair and makeup prove that women wanted to look their best even when participating in sports activities.
Hollywood Rides a Bike: Cycling with the Stars by Steven Rea
You should definitely add this book to your collection if you love pictures of old bicycles and Hollywood stars from the 1930s to the 1960s. It’s a fantastic visual treat!
Shop My Favourites
Vintage Outfit Ideas for a Bicycle Ride
Vintage photograph from LUELUE Gallery in Krakow. You might be interested in my article about; “The Perfect Weekend in Krakow.“
The Tokyobike Bicycles-A Not so Vintage Review
As I mentioned in the intro of this post, I haven’t been on a bicycle since the age of 12. To say that I have very little interest in bicycles, in general, would be an understatement of the century.
I’m very fortunate that my dear friend, Ewelina opened a Tokyobike shop in Warsaw with bicycles so beautiful that even I can’t resist! She was kind enough to let me take one of her very stylish bikes for a spin around town and I loved it.
The Tokyobike bicycles are very light and come in several styles and sizes. The one I used for my test ride and the photo shoot was the Bisou style in Desert Yellow. Naturally, I chose this particular colour because it goes perfectly with my dress and looks very vintage. The step-through frame makes it easy to mount and dismount, especially when you are wearing a pencil skirt. Last but not least, the bicycle made my first ride in XXX years very pleasant. Although, judging by the face of the passerby, I looked hilarious. Next time, I’ll be better, I promise. And yes, there will be the next time, because once you succumb to the temptation of testing the Tokyobike, you will want to do it again.
Tokyobike beauty goes with every vintage in my wardrobe.
The 1940s skirt suit worthy of Joan Crawford
I practically live in a 1940s skirt suit and see no reason why not to wear it for a bicycle ride. It was good enough for Joan Crawford and it’s good enough for me.
This is my Joan Crawford-inspired look and proof that one can look stylish when riding a bicycle. The outfit consists of a 1940s skirt suit in black rayon, SPITZ saddle shoes and braces, and white bobby socks designed exclusively for SPITZ by Gerbe.
The slightly A-line-shaped skirt is very comfortable on a bike. If I had to choose between this particular shape or a pencil skirt, I would opt for the first.
As you can see in the picture below, a skirt suit was a very popular option for a bicycle ride in 1938. I love the variety of hat styles presented in the photograph.
A Lady Cyclist Should Always Dress Well-The 1930s Summer Dress
This simple yet elegant late 1930s, early 1940s summer dress is another example that cycling can and should be done in style. I found this pink beauty in the Susan Hayword Vintage shop.
The 1940s hair snood is a lifesaver for keeping vintage hairstyles in place, but you could always wear a hat instead.
How to dress in vintage for a bicycle ride.
The 1940s Evening Dress for Riding a Bicycle in Style
- The 1940s DuBarry dress
- CC41 knickers and Teddy
- Birds & Frasia hat
Accessories for ladies who wish to look stylish when riding a bicycle.
Vintage Inspired Clothes from Vecona Vintage. For All Your Cycling Needs!
The list of stylish vintage ideas for a bike ride would be incomplete without mentioning the fabulous vintage reproduction brand, Vecona Vintage. I first discovered them while searching for a pair of 1930s jodhpurs and Knickerbockers which are impossible to find in the right size, colour and wearable condition. Sometimes, a vintage reproduction is the only option, but it has to be perfect. And perfection is what Vecona Vintage is known for. They specialise in beautiful and comfortable attire inspired by the fashions in the 1920s through to the 1940s.
Without any further ado, I’m thrilled to share with you my insightful interview with Janet of Vecona Vintage.
Knickerbocker Amelia. How to dress in vintage for a bicycle ride!
Dominique de Mereuil: How did you start your adventure with the Vecona vintage shop?
Janet of Vecona Vintage: Since 2004 I did offer custom-made garments inspired by various genres and decades at my first label VECONA. When I experienced live swing bands and dancing in New York in 2007 this struck a new chord in me. Back in Germany we hired a dance teacher and established our Deca-Dance party series with friends. For us, this meant adequate attire so my friend Kai and I came up with our first Vecona Vintage collection. In 2009 we started with three looks for ladies and gentlemen and added many new designs since then.
DdM: Are your garments based on vintage patterns? In other words, how period accurate are they?
Vecona Vintage Clothes Based on Vintage Patterns
JVV: I do collect old sewing magazines from the 1920s to 40s and made a lot of exact reproductions from old patterns to learn more about the intended look and feel of the particular garments. When we’re completely satisfied with a design we add it to our Vecona Vintage collection. The blouse GRETA and our closed-placket oxford shirt COTTON CLUB are based on original vintage patterns. Sometimes we find it necessary to add some tweaks to make a garment fit our modern aesthetics and lifestyle. So we use plastic seam zippers for our skirts and dresses because they’re almost invisible and don’t cause allergies, and our stola SILVERSCREEN STAR is made of luxurious faux fur for obvious reasons.
DdM: Vecona Vintage shop is known for superb quality garments. What goes into the process of selecting the fabrics? Are you trying to match them to the original cloth used in the 1920s or 1930s?
JVV: The most challenging part of having a small clothing label is finding materials in minor quantities that meet our expectations for a reasonable price. We work with German and Austrian-based manufacturers to provide us with high-quality fabric and custom-made notions like our embossed metal buttons. One of the weaving mills is in business since the 17th century so they offer quite an archive of tweeds they still produce today!
- It’s important to us that the materials have the look and feel of the originals and stand up to modern everyday use, including in a professional environment like the office.
- Matte finishes and interesting textures are the main focus. The palette is colourful but always slightly desaturated and with neutral undertones. That’s why we chose high-quality wool fabrics made of virgin wool and merino wool and pure plant-based fabrics, such as linen-cotton blends, viscose and Tencel. They have a great drape and can be machine washed frequently. A huge advantage, if you travel a lot and also like to wear the pieces daily. In this way, we offer the glamour of the past with the modern conveniences of today.
- Also, did you know our Vecona Vintage lining is a reproduction pattern from the 1920s we found in a man’s old waistcoat on our trip to the US? It’s art déco perfection!
DdM: Are you taking on custom-made projects?
JVV: Occasionally when an item is sold out and we have some fabric left we will make the piece as a custom order but no made-to-measure garments.
DdM: Last but not least, who are your biggest muses from the past?
JVV: Like many ladies out there I love the glamour and grace of old Hollywood actresses like Hedy Lamarr, Myrna Loy’s wit or Jean Harlow’s boudoir style and that out-of-reach diva image they represent until this day. I admire ladies like Amelia Earhart Osa Johnson or Heidi Hetzer (from Berlin) who were so much ahead of their time, adventurous and daring. You will very much find these influences and styles in our Vecona Vintage collection!
Regarding fashion designers, I can’t deny having girlish tendencies toward Elsa Schiaparelli because her concepts and designs cover so many topics I love. Her whimsical circus collections, the sparkling celestial theme and her cooperation with contemporary artists are amazing. I also love the foreign influences starting in the 19th century due to world fairs and cultural exchange i.e. with Japan that not only had an impact on European fashion design but all fields of craft and art.
Beauty Essentials for the Bicycle Ride and Beyond
The perfect sunblock.
Dr Irena Eris Clinic Way SPF 50 face cream is my to-go sunblock in the summer. It’s a must-have, especially if you don’t wear a summer hat to protect you from the damage that the sun causes to the skin.
Dr Irena Eris Clinic Way sunblock with SPF50.
Creams for mature skin from the Scientivist line
Dorian Gray had a painting that kept him forever young, and I have Scientivist creams from Dr Irena Eris.
Dr Irena Eris ScientiVist cosmetics.
- Nourishing & regenerating day cream
- Revitalising eye cream
- Nourishing & regenerating night cream
SCIENTIVIST is a line of cosmetics that intensely rejuvenate and comprehensively improve the condition of mature skin. I’ve been using the day and night creams for nearly a month now and my skin feels great.
The delicate scent of Swiss Alpine Rose is simply irresistible. I often catch myself opening the lit and sniffing it as if it was a bottle of perfume. The senoSirt complex is responsible for eliminating ageing cells. I’m excited to see how much better my skin looks already.
I am a big fan of the Polish cosmetic brand Dr Irena Eris because their products work wonders for my skin, and they are reasonably priced.
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VeraAugust 8, 2022
Dominique, you are the best!!!!
It’s so good to be back here (sorry about my long absence). I absolutely love this post – so delightful, sophisticated and (as always) so excellently researched. THANK YOU once more! I’m so glad there’s you *****
B.t.w. I don’t own a bike either 🙂 and your article made me smile a few times.
Best wishes and bye for now,
Dominique de MerteuilAugust 8, 2022
Thank you for your lovely comment, your kindness and for supporting my blog! This post was originally twice as long, with more facts on women’s bicycle wear, but I realised right before publishing that it was simply too much. When I start writing, I don’t know when to stop. 🙂
VeraAugust 13, 2022
I totally understand what you mean (also from my own experiences).
Sometimes it’s really hard to leave dear things out. But at the end it’s for the benefit of compactness and transparency – as you say.
And yet: your “dilemma” of being almost unable to stop is also a tribute to your true dedication, depth and aspiration in your work – and that speaks for you anyway…
Dominique de MerteuilAugust 14, 2022
Thank you, Vera!
A few posts on my blog need more oomph, and they keep me awake at night. Everything is a work in progress with a lot of room for improvement. 🙂
SusanAugust 2, 2022
I wish I looked as stylish as you when riding a bicycle, but it’s not even close. Dress is not an option for me but I love the idea of the vintage-inspired Knickerbocker and a simple blouse. I’m not sure what footwear would go with it because modern sneakers are usually so bland.
Dominique de MerteuilAugust 2, 2022
As I mentioned in the article, I borrowed the beautiful bicycle you see in the pictures from a friend who owns a Tokyobike shop in Warsaw. I don’t own a bicycle, and the day of the photo shoot was the first one in 30 years where I had attempted to ride a bike. The experiment was a success, and riding a bicycle dressed how I always dress didn’t make it any more difficult. And yes, I love the idea of wearing Knickerbockers paired with a blouse, perhaps a pink one, and brogues. I would love to hear an opinion from stylish cyclists on what shoes to wear when riding a bicycle, particularly in autumn.