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Why are Men’s and Women’s Bikes Shaped Differently?

Updated on February 5, 2017

What is the Difference Between These Two Bikes?

Besides some slight differences in color and style, you may notice that the frame of the bike on the top is shaped differently than the one on the bottom. The bike on the top with a crossbar that slopes downward is a traditional women’s bike, while the one on the bottom with the horizontal bar is a traditional man’s bike.

In order to understand where this difference in structure originates, we must remind ourselves of the era in which bicycles first became popularized. Pinpointing who invented the bicycle is nearly impossible because the bicycle has passed through many different phases which were designed by many different people from various areas before arriving at our modern design(s).

The History of the Bicycle

The first iteration of the bicycle that bears any noticeable commonality with the modern design was created by a French nobleman, Comte de Sivrac in 1791. His “velocipede,” as he called it, had two wheels, a saddle and was powered by pushing one’s feet directly off the ground. Due to its restrictive frame, the bike could not turn. You’ll notice that this bike bears more resemblance to our horizontal bar design because it was built to be used by a man.

A design similar to Comte de Sivrac's 1791 "velocipede"
A design similar to Comte de Sivrac's 1791 "velocipede"
1817, Baron Von Drais's design
1817, Baron Von Drais's design

A few decades later in 1817 Baron Von Drais created another version with a steerable front wheel; however, it too was missing a peddling system and was propelled my pushing off the ground. It wasn’t until 1839 that a Scottish blacksmith by the name of Kirkpatrick Macmillan invented the first pedal bike. The new pedal-powered design was then greatly improved by English inventor Henry John Lawson in 1879 with the addition of a rear chain drive.

Kirkpatrick Macmillan's 1839 design
Kirkpatrick Macmillan's 1839 design
Henry John Lawson's 1879 design
Henry John Lawson's 1879 design

Lastly, in 1888 John Dunlop added pneumatic tires to the wheels which had formerly been made with wood or metal. and made the ride more comfortable and easier. After these major innovations were made the form and shape of the bicycle slowly morphed to take on the two recognizable forms it has today.

John Dunlop's 1888 design
John Dunlop's 1888 design

What Does It Have to Do with Fashion?

During this the time of invention and innovation in the late 1700s and through the rest of the 1800s, western society was rapidly changing due to industrialization, however, most men and women still followed codes of dress dictated by strict gender roles. Women in this period wore floor-length dresses and skirts which were often heavy due to excessive layers of fabric, in addition to bulky undergarments such as corsets, cage crinoline, petticoats, and bustles which often weighed more than seven pounds. Therefore, to accommodate these large unruly skirts the bar was made to slant down at the expense of structural strength. The structural strength sacrificed by this change could be significant since bikes of this time were often made of wood, rather than the strong aluminum or carbon fiber frames of today. People of the time didn’t see this as much of a problem though, since women were not expected to do any rough riding.

Because of the changes in gender roles and society brought about by industrialization, many women in the latter half of the 19th century began to desire a more practical alternative to the heavy and often hazardous ensembles of the past. In the new bustling cities popping up throughout Europe and the Americas heavy skirts were impractical. They swept along the dirty city streets accumulating grime and trash along the way. They were also extremely treacherous tripping hazards for women walking through the narrow staircases and alleys found in early cities and were even considered to be a potentially life-threatening fire hazard.

Despite all of this, change was not easy. When Amelia Bloomer first debuted her famous ankle-length loose pant design, the public was shocked although the ensemble still included a shorter dress worn over the “bloomers.” It wouldn’t be until the early 1900s that pants truly began infiltrate women’s fashion when French designer Paul Poiret’s harem pant made it onto the 1913 cover of Vogue magazine. By the 1930s Hollywood A-listers began sporting pants and by the 40s and 50s women of the Western World began to truly embrace pants as a practical and fashionable option.

Despite the adoption of pants as a socially acceptable fashion choice, bicycles continue to be made in male and female versions. Today, many people do not even realize that these differences in design correlate to the gender of its rider, that may be because elite women’s models now favor the horizontal frame with slight modifications to account for the shorter torso and arms of female riders.

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