Patently improved cycling knickers

One of the books I enjoyed the most last year was Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers. Victorian Women Inventors and Their Extraordinary Cycle Wear. The bicycle boom of the 1890s was not only instrumental in getting middle-class women out of their homes and onto the streets on bicycles, but also propelled them into another traditionally male domain, intellectual property, via the registration of patents for cycle clothing.

Cover of Bikes and Bloomers by Kat Jungnickel Goldsmiths Press London 2018
Bikes and Bloomers by Kat Jungnickel Goldsmiths Press London 2018 Available from the State Library Victoria

Kat and her team take an in depth look at the patents and designs of six female inventors addressing the problem of comfortable practical cycle clothing for women. Their work is focussed on Victorian Britain but it got me wondering, did Melbourne women register patents for cycle clothing at the same time?

There was certainly an incentive for women in Melbourne to come up with new designs for cycle wear. Like their cycling sisters in the UK, Australian women could choose between traditional women’s dress and the very distinct possibility of an accident caused by their skirts and petticoats getting caught in moving parts or choose more practical variations, often called ‘rational dress’, and suffer the inevitable abuse that went with wearing them. As one woman writes to the Editor of The Champion in July 1895;

‘I abandoned a skirt and adopted rational dress for greater safety (twice being nearly killed by my skirt catching in the pedals), and not, as the enemies of cycling say of all women who wear rational dress, because of vanity.

Kat Jungnickel’s book lists British Cycle Wear Patents submitted between 1890-1900 and this is where I started, imagining that Australians might well submit patent designs via the British office for one reason or another. Voila! Patent No. 6929 is registered by an Ethel Eva Levien of St Kilda Road, Melbourne and is for ‘Improved Women’s Cycling Knickers’. Ethel was a daughter of the Hon. Felix Levien, a prominent Melbourne businessman and politician. They lived in Madowla, one of the beautiful mansions lining St Kilda Road at the time, and she appears in Melbourne Punch as one of the debutantes of 1894.

Ethel Levien debutante portrait
Ethel Levien, gentlewoman, and cycling knickers inventor. Photo from Melbourne Punch 1895. you can find it on

Like many society debutantes she toured England and the continent with her mother and eventually settled in the UK. Reports of her cycling proficiency appear now and then in Melbourne society papers over the ensuing years and cycling remained a significant enough part of her life to inspire her to design her own cycling knickers six years on.

Part of Ethel Levien's 1900 UK patent application no. 6929
Part of Ethel Levien’s 1900 UK patent application no. 6929 You can search European patents at Espacenet, which at least for now, includes British patents.

Interestingly, the practical problem that Ethel’s cycling knickers seem to be trying to solve is one that cycling wear manufacturers are still coming to grips with today. With an opening in the centre of the knickers, instead of at the sides, Levien’s design bears some resemblance to more recent attempts to improve the practicality of full cycling bibs for female riders. She mentions that they should be easier to get on and off but also has several references to their appearance, which implies they are not intended to be worn under a skirt. It makes me wonder about the sort of cycling Ethel was doing? The combination of knickers with no skirt and the ability to take a toilet break without fully disrobing and I’m imagining her on some outdoor adventures. I’m not sure I’d want to be sitting on those buttons for any length of time though!

Diagram from Ethel Levien's 1900 UK patent application no. 6929
Diagram from Ethel Levien’s 1900 UK patent application no. 6929

Closer to home, or Melbourne, Australia, a Mrs Feldon caused not a little excitement in the cycling press with a costume she had devised that allowed women to ride diamond framed bicycles with the comfort of rationals but the appearance of a skirt. With the consistent abuse that wearers of rational dress attracted every time they left the house this would have been a very appealing design. Mrs Feldon was a dressmaker located in St Kilda, a location frequented by society cyclistes in particular after finishing their laps of Beaconsfield Parade and it is not unlikely the idea was suggested to her by one of her clients. Many middle-class women went to tailors and dressmakers for their cycling, and other, costumes. Australian Cyclist reports early in 1896, under the heading A Perfect Rational Dress;

Mrs Feldon of St Kilda has invented a cycling skirt which can be worn on a diamond or dropped frame, and combines the safety of ordinary bloomers with the grace of a walking dress. The wearer, when seated on a diamond frame, appears to be in an ordinary skirt ……..

The article goes on to say that Mrs Feldon plans to patent her invention and indeed from October 1896 onwards Mrs Feldon’s many advertisements describe her skirt as not only the only Approved costume but herself as Inventor and Patentee.

Mrs Feldon's advertisement in the Jewish Herald 1897
Mrs Feldon’s advertisement in the Jewish Herald 1897

However, despite searching online databases for patent registrations in Australia, the UK and the United States, I can’t find any record of her patent being registered. Was she bluffing? Or did she register under another name?

Another Melbourne woman, Agnes Henderson registered a patent at the same time for an improved cycling skirt. Like Mrs Feldon, Henderson was a dressmaker, so had the technical skills to engineer new clothing. Unlike Mrs Feldon, newspaper reports of the time mention that she was also a very capable cyclist. Her patent, no. 13166 in Victoria, was for a skirt fitted with chords with which the wearer could adjust the length of the skirt; ankle, knee or even higher, according to their activity.

Agnes Henderson’s ‘Improved Cyclig Skirt’ patent application
you can search for details of Victorian patents at the SLV.

A cyclist could wear the skirt high over their knickerbockers when riding in the country and lower it to a respectable length on arrival in town. It could even be adjusted to accomodate a diamond framed bicycle. Agnes was given a position at Melbourne’s George and Georges Federal Emporium from where customers could order their custom made, and improved, cycling skirt.

Agnes Henderson’s ‘Improved Cyclig Skirt’ patent application
you can search for details of Victorian patents at the SLV.

These are just a couple of examples of the ways in which Melbourne women took up the challenge of engineering clothing in which they could safely ride a bicycle. It’s interesting that more recently, women still found it difficult to find well designed cycling clothing, particularly those indulging in sportier cycling, and that the last decade or so has seen many cycling labels created by women to address just this issue. Melbourne women are still stepping up to the challenge with local brands, like Fondo for example, created to address the gap but how bizarre that here we are 125 years later, revisiting some of the same issues?

I highly recommend checking out Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers book. Here’s a great little video about her project to whet your appetite.