The third and final large event in the Live Transmissions event was the exhibition launch of the project ‘Freedom of Movement: the bike, bloomer and female cyclist in late C19th Britain’ (or Bikes & Bloomers for short!). It was held at Look Mum No Hands, a popular bike cafe, bar and workshop in a fantastically central London location on Friday 13th June, starting at 7pm.
We had set up the main parts of the exhibition the night before. This included the automaton and display boards, vintage sewing machine and sewn banner. On the day we added to the display with ceiling hung spools of colourful thread, smaller versions of the digitally printed silk linings by Alice and extra costume pieces for the automaton.
The automaton was specifically designed to ensure the clothing was on display on a mobile female body. It was imperative, given the project was about the freedom of movement, that the garments did not just simply hang motionless on a headless ‘mannequin’.
This is because from a Science & Technology Studies (STS) perspective I view clothing as a technology. Clothing is a means through which bodies are made to fit with new technologies and become mobile. Mobility technologies are symbols of modernity. They are also the means through which bodies are made modern. Yet some bodies are more easily made mobile (and modern) than others! Looking at cycle wear as a technology offers a way of seeing how it both enables and also inhibits movement – physical, as as well as ideological. And looking at women’s cycle wear presents new ways of thinking about gendered mobility and citizenship.
So I worked with a architect, model maker/carpenter and two engineers to build a full sized interactive cycling womanequin whose legs were powered by a turn of a hand crank. In addition, the team built a series of display boards and extra semi-automated features such as flying birds.
Things started to get busy in the afternoon of the launch – with the arrival of the screen printers who were preparing to live screen print a series of cycling suffrage images onto t-shirts for people throughout the night. This was another way of involving bodies in the research – of literally getting the project onto bodies. (I’ve been doing this throughout the year with bloomer making workshops!)
The live screen printed shirts proved very popular – apparently the printing people didn’t stop all night. We chose and/or made images that reflected social and cultural ideas about what a woman should be like on a bike, the changing body shapes of women as they shifted into more ‘Rational Dress’ (away from corsets) and other similar period imagery.
Meanwhile the research team and collaborators were busy preparing for the performance, tinkering on the exhibition or doing some very last minute adjustments. We were picking threads off each other all night – the garments were hot off the machine!
All the garments – 24 fully lined hand made pieces not counting accessories in the form of hat bands and scarves – were on the rail ready to wear.
We dressed at 7pm, had final rehearsals and mingled with the growing crowd.
It was amazing to see the costumes finally come together after months of very hard work. There were five in total (from left to right): Annette was wearing a patented costume by Madame Julia Gill, I was in Alice Louisa Bygrave’s convertible skirt, Rachel was wearing Frances Henrietta Muller’s design and Lan-Lan was in the Pease sisters skirt/cape. The fifth ensemble, Mary Ward’s ‘Hyde Park Safety Skirt’ was worn by the automaton in the window. It was fantastic that all the women wearing the costumes were cyclists and involved in the development of the project in some way.
Food was served.
The terrific thing about LMNH’s location is how the event brought together not only lots of cycling, sewing and sociologists but also people who just happened to be there on the night or who walked past and thought we looked interesting.
I talked about changing ideas of women’s mobile bodies in public space at the turn of the last century – about dress reform, suffrage activities, advent of the ‘safety’ bike and the shifting social and cultural conditions that created the conditions for the invention of convertible cycle wear.
I explained a little about why we drew on cycle wear patents lodged by women for women in the 1890s and why we considered them to be fascinating design objects – ie. they define the problem they then attempt to solve, all the while providing a glimpse into the social/cultural context and step by step instructions for how to re-make the artefacts.
I introduced the five convertible cycle wear garments we had chosen to make from 120 year old patents – garments that represented a particular flashpoint in history when women were carving out new forms of gendered mobile citizenship via an intersection of design, technology, bodies, public space and political activism. Convertible cycle wear gave the appearance of ‘ordinary’ dress off the bike, yet could be converted into safer, more comfortable form when on the bike.
I was wearing a ‘Bygrave convertible skirt’. Alice Louisa Bygrave lodged the patent in the UK on 1st November 1895 and it was accepted on 6th December 1895. (Yes – quick turn around!). What’s fascinating about Alice is that she lodged the same patent in Canada and Switzerland. It is an unusual story in that we were able to trace her invention from the patent office to a commercial context. In 1896 her invention was picked up and distributed by Jaeger, the British fashion house, under her name – the Bygrave ‘Convertible’ Skirt – and was advertised in popular periodicals such as ‘The Lady Cyclist’ and ‘The Queen’.
“My invention relates to improvements in ladies’ cycling skirts and the object is to provide a skirt as proper for wear when the wearer is on her cycle as when she has dismounted.”
The patented skirt features a interconnected series of stitched channels, clips, cords, rings, weights and a hidden pulley system enable the wearer to change the skirt height according to need.
I also talked about how in researching Alice’s life we discovered that she came from a family of watch and clock makers, professional cyclists and dressmakers. It is therefore not hard to see why her patent features well considered deliberately concealed technologies that enable it to operate.
We handed out specially printed series of cards – one for each of the cycling costumes. Each told stories about the inventors, unique characteristics of their patented garment and the influences/contents of its design. They featured a die cut of a woman’s body and the audience was encouraged to hold up the cards and place each of our colourful live dressed bodies into a black and white contextual Victorian photo. There was much jostling and smiling as everyone got into the spirit of the piece!
Instead of just talking about the patents and the inventors, the performance adopted an interview structure. Drawing on our genealogical and archival research from the past year, we sought to bring to life each of these characters and enable them to speak in their own words, to put real bodies back into patent archives and history.
I started by interviewing Annette in the character of Madame Julia Gill who invented a ‘Cycling Costume for Ladies’ in 1895. Annette/Julia told us about her life as a Court dressmaker, her middle and upper class clientele, what fashionable high society lady cyclists were wearing on their bikes and where they were cycling and also the range of influences (new media, new materials, new technologies etc) that she was drawing on to produce her designs.
“The skirt is made with an underlayer of the same material or other kind which when turned up is drawn in at the waist with a cord run through, rings, tapes or eyelet holes &c. which then forms a semi-skirt, the under piece forming a frill and giving the appearance of a jacket bodies. When the wearer gets off the cycle the skirt drops into place as n ordinary walking skirt.”
“My invention has for its object to provide a suitable combination costume for lady cyclists, so that they have a safe riding garment combined with an ordinary walking costume for use when dismounted.”
Annette/Julia asked if we wanted to see the inventive qualities of her cycling skirt patent. With an enthusiastic ‘Yes’ from the audience, she demonstrated how the lower skirt flounce cleverly concealed a ribbon threaded through a row of rings. Gathering the ribbon and lower skirt up and around her waist formed a double peplum with the jacket and which removed the danger of the skirts being caught in the bicycle wheels. This action also revealed Alice’s beautiful linings which again told stories of Madame Julia Gill’s life and her patent.
The patent by Frances Henrietta Müller of Meads, Maidenhead was next. Rachel, in character as Frances, told us how she registered a patent for ‘Improvements in Ladies’ Garments for Cycling and other Purposes’ on 30th May 1896. She was 50 years old. Frances Henrietta Müller was a passionate and prominent women’s rights activist and suffragette. She devoted her life to the advancement of women’s freedom of movement in all spheres; such as agitating for equal pay for equal work in 1883 and promoting contraception to free women from continual child-bearing in 1884. She is also renown for founding and editing ‘The Women’s Penny Paper’ 1888-1893.
“These improvements consist in the form and combination of three separately constructed articles of ladies’ costume, so made as to afford special faculty and convenience when cycling.”
Although well known as a British suffragette, Frances’s history of patenting convertible cycle wear has not, until now, been linked to her other considerable achievements.
Lan-Lan took to the stage as Mary Elizabeth Pease, telling us that her older sister Sarah Ann was out cycling. They are gentlewomen living with their family in Harrogate, Yorkshire. Their patent consisted of a full wrap around skirt that could be converted into a cycling cape. This is the most radical design out of the collection in that the skirt completely comes away from the body. It transforms into a cape with the waistband converting into a high ruché collar. It could also be attached to the bicycle.
“The rational dress now greatly adopted by lady cyclists has one or two objections inasmuch that when the lady is dismounted her lower garments and figure are too much exposed.”
“This invention thus far is of importance to lady cyclists. It is preferable to make it of light waterproof or rainproof material of reverse colours, say a check and a plain to suit or approach the usual colour of garments generally work, so that on dismounting if the article be in wear as a cape its removal and securing round the waist would be in a few moments convert[ed] it into skirt without making the wearer unlike others in the vicinity”.
I finished the talk/performance with many thanks to:
Rachel Pimm – Research Assistant
Nadia Constantinou – Pattern Cutter
Alice Angus – Artist – aliceangus.net
Nikki Pugh – Researcher – npugh.co.uk
Annette-Carina van der Zaag – Researcher and Sewing Assistance
Brit Hatzius – Filmmaker – brithatzius.co.uk
Charlotte Barnes – Photographer – charlottebarnes.com
James Fraser – Automaton Display – Architect, MORA – moraworkshop.com
Rupert Fisher – Automaton Display – Allies and Morrison Architects – alliesandmorrison.com
Edwin Knight and John Gray – Automaton Display
The research, exhibition and opening was supported by Goldsmiths, Intel and the Economic and Social Research Council.
It was a brilliant evening and wonderful way to end a project and the four day ‘Live Transmissions‘ event.