Convertible Cycle Skirt

by Agnes Henderson, 1896

Inventor

  • NAMEAgnes Henderson
  • PATENTAU1314913166
  • DATEJune 9, 1896
  • LOCATIONPatented in Australia – inventor residing in Melbourne
  • INVENTION“An Improved Cycling Skirt”
  • THEMEMoving
BIO —

Born in 1856, in Fife, Scotland, Agnes Henderson (neé Cunningham) emigrated to Australia and by the late 1880s was working as a skilled and respected dressmaker at George and George’s, a large department store in central Melbourne. Around the time of Henderson’s patent, cycling was so popular that, in addition to supplying tailored garments, the store also housed a cycling school.

Henderson was an excellent cyclist and had an eye for business. She promoted her invention at the department store and people could order and try out the skirt in the cycling school. She also specified a brand name for her unique invention – the “Eclecta Skirt”.

Invention

PROBLEM —

Henderson designed a skirt that offered the wearer choices while walking or cycling – acts of independence for women, which were frowned upon by some parts of society. It was also very dangerous to cycle with flapping materials near wheels and pedals. By changing the length of the skirt, wearers could adapt the garment to reduce the risk to their physical safety or to minimise the risk of harassment.

SOLUTION —

Three long cords are sewn into the skirt. Two are outside on each side, and the third is inside, hidden in the centre back seam. All end in tassels. The wearer lifts the cords and the skirt raises up. The side cords lift the skirt for ladies’ bike riding, the centre back cord raises it even higher for a diamond frame (men’s) bike riding. The cords wrap around the waist in a decorative style.

“The invention consists of an improved cycling skirt which is made suitable for being used as a walking for use by lady cyclists and of being further draped to suit ladies who ride the diamond frame bicycle.”
— Agnes Henderson, inventor
Agnes Henderson's invention in the press

"Mrs Henderson, of George and George's, has invented and patented a costume which happily combines all the necessities of a skirt for wheeling, which can also be worn for walking or shopping and is quite a smart touring costume as well."

Melbourne Punch1896

"The construction is simple, and shows at first sight a walking skirt of moderate width and length. In this state it is suitable for town riding, but for country cycling or touring greater freedom is given to the limbs by a clever arrangement of loops set down either side of the skirt from the waist."

The Australasian1896

"The skirt is of a neat length, perfectly cut, and is fitted with cords slipped through rings attached diagonally down each side. When the cyclist wishes to ride comfortably she just pulls these cords, and the skirt is considerably shortened by means of well-fitting folds, which sit in a manner leaving nothing to be desired."

The Leader, Melbourne1896

"This skirt is suitable for wearing on a ladies or gentleman’s bicycle, and many enthusiastic cyclists prefer the latter machine. When walking the skirt looks like a smart walking skirt."

East of Fife Record1896
Speculatively Sewing Agnes Henderson's invention

We made three iterations of Henderson’s invention. A half-sized calico toile helped us work out the basics of the three-cord pulley system. The second version was a full-sized calico toile to see how it worked on the body. This larger version enabled us to appreciate the nuance of the engineering. The third was made in heavier wool – a Dashing Tweed high-vis reflective weave. It was tested out by Alice Lemkes in the “Women On The Move” film.

We were impressed by the different mechanisms for raising the skirt to different levels. A series of loops guide the cords, inside and out, ensuring easy movement of the material. A series of open hooks lower down on the skirt enable it to be lifted to different heights — the ankle, knee or higher still. This infrastructure gave the wearer many options. Lifting eh side cords produces a pleasing gathered or ruched effect. The wearer could ride a step-through ladies frame bicycle, and her legs/bloomers would remain covered at the sides.

Lifting the inside cord, located in the rear centre seam, raises the skirt higher still. This mechanism clears the material from the rear wheel. This is very clever and enables the wearer to ride a diamond frame, a man’s bicycle of the period. The effect again is a pleasing ruffle of fabric at the back, not too dissimilar to a bustle. The skirt can be easily reversed back into a long ordinary garment when the cords are released.

All cords end in tassels, which look decorative when wrapped around the waist. We were interested in how the convertibility of this skirt is both exposed and hidden. Henderson draws attention to the unique design while also concealing its quite radical possibilities. Overall it’s a fascinating example of steganography – hiding in plain sight.

Henderson's invention in POP's short film

POP invited The Adventure Syndicate (TAS) and Mòr Diversity to try out a collection of reconstructed convertible, reversible, multiple and hidden sports- and active-wear in the Scottish hills. We made 5 customised costumes spanning from the 1890s to 1940s – including Henderson’s convertible cycling skirt.

Together we went running, jumping, hiking, flying, cycling, swimming, hunting, riding horses, catching trains and driving cars, climbing up and rolling down hills and otherwise putting these amazing costumes through their paces. We made a short film (20mins) called “Women On The Move”, directed by Alice Lemkes of TAS, which is currently being shown at international women’s and sports/adventure film festivals.

The initial launch of the film on International Women’s Day 2022 coincided with the publishing of a journal article in the Sociological Review which goes into all of this in more depth. See below for more links to events and research.

More research into Henderson's invention