Tessie Reynolds – a pioneer of rational dress
On International Women’s Day we celebrate those women who have made an impact on our lives. Tessie Reynolds was one of those women: a young cycling enthusiast and an unintentional pioneer of gender equality.
This is an excerpt from my book ‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’
Miss Reynolds… is but the forerunner of a big movement – the stormy petrel heralding the storm of revolt against the petticoat. ~ G. Lacy Hillier in Bicycling News, 1893
In September 1893, a young woman from Brighton cycled 120 miles to London and back in a record time of eight hours and 30 minutes. Aged just 16, her speed was remarkable. But what caused more of a stir at the time was the fact that she wore trousers.
Women in the late nineteenth century were expected to be modest in character and appearance: to wear feminine and becoming outfits consisting of floor-length skirts, tight jackets, corsets and voluminous petticoats. But such clothing was restrictive. Tessie Reynolds and her sisters had all been active from an early age, encouraged by their father to take up cycling, boxing and fencing. He was the secretary of a local cycling club and member of the National Cycling Union (NCU); her mother ran a boarding house in Brighton that welcomed cyclists. It had never been in her nature to wear clothing that would restrict her in the activities that she loved.
The question of women’s emancipation was gaining momentum, pioneered by a call for clothing reform; the Rational Dress Society, founded in London in 1881, demanded that women should be able to wear clothes appropriate to their activities. In America, a certain Amelia Bloomer had developed a practical outfit consisting of a skirt worn over a pair of loose-fitting trousers or pantaloons. Leading suffragist and advocate of cycling Frances Willard said, ‘If women ride they must… dress more rationally than they have been wont to do. If they do this many prejudices as to what they may be allowed to wear will melt away.’ Women campaigners couldn’t fail to notice the irony that men’s outfits were steadily being adjusted to allow them to ride their bicycles more easily – coat tails, for example, were made shorter to prevent them from becoming caught in the wheels. No such compensations were made for women.
As one cyclist of the time put it, ‘A specialist adaption of dress is absolutely necessary, for skirts, while they have not hindered women from climbing to the topmost branches of higher education, may prove fatal in down-hill coasting.’
Tessie’s ride in a rational outfit of knee-length breeches, a shirt and a long coat caused national outrage. In a time when it was scandalous for a woman to reveal her ankles, Cycling magazine described her outfit as ‘of a most unnecessary masculine nature and scantiness’. She was accused of cycling in her knickerbockers.
Though she was not the first woman to wear such clothing, Tessie’s ride attracted a huge amount of attention and was reported as far away as America: she had been racing, something that was not seemly for a woman; she had travelled through a number of towns on her way into central London, thereby exposing her female form to a large number of people; she rode a man’s bicycle; and she was cheered on by a group of male pacemakers, including her father, who had acted as timekeeper. The authorities were appalled, Cycling magazine denounced it as a ‘lamentable’ incident and the Yorkshire Evening Post reported:
‘A pair of legs working like cranks on a pair of pedals is ugly enough in a man; but in a woman, especially with abnormal hips, the sight is a caricature of the sweetest and best half of humanity.’
In all likelihood many of the people she passed would not even have noticed that she was a woman. Perhaps Tessie was delighted with the attention – it certainly didn’t put her off wearing that outfit, which had many more outings as she rode her bicycle.
However, it was men, rather than women, who set records in those days; Tessie’s time did not officially count. Athleticism was discouraged as being dangerous to women’s health; overexertion was blamed for heart disease, pneumatic disorders, overdeveloped muscles, nervous disorders and infertility. Tessie was taken to be examined afterwards by a doctor. Unsurprisingly, he found her to have suffered no ill effects from her ride.
There was much discussion of Tessie’s outfit on the ladies’ page of Bicycling News. She described her pantaloons as ‘very comfortable and convenient’ and women wrote letters asking for the pattern. The female editor wrote:
‘I think Miss Reynolds’ costume is undoubtedly the cycling costume of the future, and I feel sure feminine cycling will reach, with its general adoption, to heights which are at present impossible for it. I congratulate Miss Reynolds on her courage in being an apostle of the movement.’
Leading cycling expert of the time George Lacy Hillier wrote: ‘A well-known cycling legislator recently remarked that he would like to set some of Miss Reynolds’s critics the task of riding from Brighton to London and back with a skirt on.’
Tessie’s fame brought her many letters of admiration and even marriage proposals, and she went on to be an advocate for women’s cycling, promoting bicycles and racing – always wearing rational dress.
Tessie didn’t set out to be a pioneer of women’s rights nor of cycle sport, but it’s indisputable that her ride as a daring young teenager helped both.
This is an excerpt from my book ‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’ available to buy now