Combination Cycle Skirt

by Alice Worthington Winthrop, 1895

Inventor

  • NAMEAlice Worthington Winthrop
  • PATENTUS549472A
  • DATENovember 5, 1895
  • LOCATIONPatented in the USA – inventor residing in Washington, DC
  • INVENTION“Bicycle-Skirt”
  • THEMEMoving
BIO —

Born in 1846, Alice Worthington Winthrop (neé Worthington) was orphaned by the age of three. She grew up with her grandmother, aunts and uncle, and married in 1877 to a Colonel William Winthrop.

Her bicycle suit was distributed by at least four key department stores across the US, but we have not yet found evidence of it going into wider production. Further to inventing a suit to enable women to participate in a range of physical activities, Winthrop was committed to advocating healthy living and women’s rights more broadly. Shortly after filing her patent, she started writing on subjects such as “Diet for Brain Workers”, “The Question of Food for the People” and “Collegiate Education for Women”.

Invention

PROBLEM —

Divided skirts – regarded by the inventor as “the least cumbersome form of ladies’ apparel for bicycle-riding” – were not yet seen by wider society as suitable to wear while off the bicycle. Active women had to be inventive in how they could disguise the fact that they were wearing bifurcated garments. Winthrop was interested in how a single garment might be used for walking, cycling and social settings as well as changing weather conditions.

SOLUTION —

Winthrop’s design comprised a divided skirt with front and rear panels that could be fixed in place to cover the two-legged nature of the garment. Taking the invention further, the front panel could be folded and fasted to form a satchel or pocket with attachments to affix to the handlebars of the wearer’s bicycle. The rear panel could be used as a hooded cape to protect the wearer should the weather become inclement or the rider become chilled.

“The detached parts can be done up in a bundle of small compass and strapped to the bicycle, so as to be available for instant use at any time the wearer may wish, if, for example, she may wish to quit her bicycle and walk for any distance or length of time.”
— Alice Worthington Winthrop, inventor
Alice Worthington Winthrop's invention in the press

"The 'Winthrop' Bicycle Suit – is one of the combination divided-skirt pattern, with back and front attachments. These attachments are put on while walking, giving the appearance of an ordinary skirt, and are taken off while riding, giving a free and graceful appearance while on the wheel. (...) It is considered by all to be far superior to any bicycle suit on the market today."

Evening Star, Washington1896

"The 'Winthrop' Suit, The 'Diamond' Suit, The 'Lilian' Suit. Either of these three suits may be worn on a man's or woman's wheel and are susceptible to various changes for walking, riding or journeying. Yet with all these adaptations they are exceedingly simple, graceful and comfortable."

Evening Star, Washington1896

"Half the pleasure of riding a wheel may be spoiled by an ill-shaped skirt. You probably know the Winthrop Bicycle Skirt. It is stylish and comfortable."

Indianapolis Journal1896
Speculatively Sewing Alice Worthington Winthrop's invention

“The Winthrop” invention is made up of 3 garments – and everything turns into something else.

It initially appears to be an ordinary long A-line skirt. However, upon removing the front apron, it turns out the full-length skirt is in fact not a skirt at all but rather wide-legged trousers. The front apron is buttoned at the waistband and hips and when it is removed it transforms into a satchel or pocket, which can be worn over the shoulder or arm or attached to the handlebars of the bicycle. The inventor indicates where to add extra buttons and straps for such attachments.

The apron at the back of the garment is gathered at the waist to create a full skirt effect. When pulled away from the waistband and turned 45 degrees, it reveals two cords that are threaded across a corner. Raising this garment to the shoulders and gathering the cords creates a hooded cape. Winthrop also suggests that, when in nice weather, the wearer could simply fold this up and put it into the satchel. It’s a very clever design!

Sewing this invention required a lot of work. As indicated above there are many pieces and there are even more fastenings. The team made an initial calico toile and then 5 customised versions in heavier stretch denim for the performers to wear in the POP theatre piece (see below). All were lined with a specific colour to highlight the inventive details. Each time we made it, the invention revealed something new to us.

Winthrop’s invention involved 2 stages of speculative sewing – we constructed the invention (3 pieces per garment), and then we added all the fastenings and fixings. This was an entirely other laborious job which points to the attention to detail by inventors like Winthrop involved in transforming garments from one form into another. It also highlighted to us just what emerges from reconstructing a patent, that differs from just reading it. It is very easy to skim over boring and mundane details like fastenings – and yet, in this case especially, they are critical technologies in the transformation of the invention.

Winthrop’s invention included: depending on the size of the garment we were reconstructing, (up to) 10 pairs of snaps/poppers, 2 straps and 4 snap/poppers for the handle on the front apron, and (up to) 15 pairs of snaps/poppers to secure the rear apron. The rear apron also required (up to) 12 loops sewn on the inside to secure the cord that gathered the neck of the cape. The skirt/trousers had 3 buttons on the side placket.

Winthrop's invention was part of POP's theatre show

POP team collaborated with the award-winning feminist theatre company Scary Little Girls, led by Becca Morden and Dr Naomi Paxton and featuring a troupe of talented performers, to produce an interactive and immersive theatre show based on POP research.

Called POCKETS of POWER, this theatrical collaboration involved comedy, spoken word, songs, sketches, puppetry and audience games. It showed how women throughout history radically reinvented the worlds of clothing invention and design to solve problems and smash stereotypes.

This show was commissioned and performed at Glastonbury 2023, Being Human Festival 2023 and Mayven Arts Festival in Cornwall 2023.

More research into Winthrop's invention