A bicycle glided down the street, passing through the mist and smoke of London while Victoria was on the throne. Wind, pedestrians’ sights and the ecstasy of freedom blew on the face of the cyclist. It would be a gentleman, a factory labor, a newsboy and even a lady in bloomers!
Bicycles were used as a recreation for the middle class or upper classes in the first place, and then served as transportation for mail carriers or patrol officers. From the velocipedes without pedals, the uncomfortable wooden wheel boneshaker, the penny-farthings with ridiculously high front wheel to the “safety bicycle”, which is closer to modern bicycles, the design of these human-powered vehicles evolved from number and size of the wheels to the application of treadles, drive chains, materials for tires and frames. Chains, gears, straps and two wheels, bicycle became an escape of the city for working-class and an escape of the doll house for women. Unable to afford a motorbike or a horse, they could travel a longer distance by bicycle than on foot. Fitness, leisure and independence, cycling is a way of transportation, a sport and a symbol of liberation.
However, riding bicycle was considered to be harmful for women’s moral and health. (Doctors warned the danger of “bicycle face”. Don’t laugh, it’s serious.) A woman daring enough to ride a bicycle had to risk her social reputation. These did not stop the ladies to mount on the bikes. Additionally, women fashion in Victorian era made it difficult for them to ride bicycles. Legs should be covered and trousers are for men. Women attires were changed by bicycle craze along with the rational dress movement to remove the constraint of suffocatingly tight corsets, heavy skirts and high heels. The liberty of body led to the liberty of actions. Individuals gained independence physically and socially with mobility.
“Bikes are not for ladies,” they said, and now they designed the “ladies bike”. Less athletic, lower crossbar, narrower handle, basket and “girlish” color, etc., bicycles are designed to fit physically and socially for women. Take Japan’s mother baby stroller bike for example. Mamachari, translated literally as “mummy bike” from Japanese, is a bike designed for housewives: a basket for groceries and a back seat with seatbelts to carry children. (Another seat at the front for mums with two kids.) Ironically, women were then freed and now burdened with their domestic responsibilities by bicycles. The design of the bike also “designed” the role of women.
Girls on bike are no big deal nowadays. Nevertheless, vehicles designs are still gendered in female markets and products not only designed by women but also designed for women are relatively rarer than that of male. The market will grow as Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women riding bikes and driving cars since the mid of 2018. Will it start another dress reform and allow them to have a firm grip to steer their future?
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