Wearing Real Clothes: A Radical Political Statement

Is riding your bike in an outfit from Tangerine Boutique, Carousel Vintage, or Nordstrom’s some kind of sellout?

Some women bike advocates seem to think so.

I feel the need to rant a bit after following links I found in a post by Cap’n Transit. He pointed to a series of tweets by bike advocate Elly Blue about what she sees as the divisive and elitist aspects of the Cycle Chic movement. He also linked to a 2009 blog post on Biker Chicks of West Chester (PA) that sees skirts and heels as symbols of male oppression.

First, why this blog isn’t “Cycle Chic Spokane”: For me, “chic” can carry a connotation of being expensive, luxurious, and mostly unavailable to regular everyday people–like looking at an issue of Vogue on Bikes. (I also think the term “cycling” connotes a workout; I “ride my bike” and don’t break a sweat most days.)

Style, on the other hand, can come from the way you tie your Goodwill or Value Village scarf with particular flair. It doesn’t necessarily carry a steep price tag. But is it somehow “wrong” to ride in a skirt even if it came from a thrift shop?

The Biker Chicks blogger, Libby Maxim, wrote,

“If you want to bike to work, fine, but put on appropriate clothes, pants, sneakers and a sweater for example. You only let men control your clothing choices when you bike in short skirts and tight tops. I see no choice in your biking clothing selection, only a lady trying hard to wear what men want us to wear.”

So now instead of a man telling me what to wear, it’s a woman. How is this an improvement?

Tweet from @ellyblue: Exclusivity. Commodification. Class. RT @velovogue: Elly - I'm not sure I catch your drift. Why does cycle chic do harm? Tweet response from @velovogue: @ellyblue I'm a believer of different types of marketing. I think cycle chic does inspire more middle class women to ride.

Maxim takes aim specifically at Cycle Chic and  appears to think that everyone who rides in real clothes is dressed provocatively, describing low-cut tops and short skirts.

That’s not what I ride in (well, some of the skirts…). I want to wear regular clothes and ride comfortably. As I’ve ranted before, I want clothes for biking that don’t look like clothes for biking.

Forcing me into bike-specific clothing is just as confining as forcing me into a tight skirt that makes it hard to get on and off the bike. I find wearing a loose skirt much cooler and more convenient in the summer than pants that cook my legs and pick up chain grease, and far more convenient than dressing down (remember how much you hated that in PE?) and changing in the bathroom at work.

In taking aim at the clothing choices pictured in the Cycle Chic movement it seems to me Maxim misses the point. My takeaway, when you peel away the layers of Vogue: People wearing clothing they want to wear—whether someone approves of their choices or not—should feel free to use a bike to get around for everyday transportation.

“If you want to bike to work, fine” also sounds to me as if biking to work is somehow not “real” riding. Maybe I’m reading too much into that “fine”—it sounds dismissive. One of the commenters on the blog who mocks the idea of a skirt guard for her Cannondale falls into that tone, as if a skirt guard would violate the purity of her road bike. I guess the commuter gear loaded onto my Specialized Dolce is a violation too–hadn’t realized I wasn’t allowed to just use it as a bike. I’ll add that skirt guard ASAP.

There’s another level at which I think it’s genuinely important to ride in skirts and high heels. The type of infrastructure suitable for Mr. High-Speed Spandex is not that inviting to Ms. Step-Through Skirt.

To make riding a bike genuinely appealing and accessible to a wide range of riders we need people who don’t currently ride to see role models that help them envision themselves on a bike. When I’m kitted out and clipped in I don’t send the message that riding a bike is for everyone. I send the message that it’s for people who are already fit and confident, just as Cycle Chic pictures send the message that biking is for the fit and fashionable.

How about more real people, wearing real clothes, riding bikes? It’s not a plot, honest.

Your Turn

  • Do you look at Cycle Chic blogs at all? Are they inspiring or just eye candy?
  • Do you judge other riders as being “real” or not based on their clothing?

Bonus Round

A couple of years ago Spokane Transit asked me to be one of the people featured in their ad campaigns. Specifically, they wanted to show someone dressed in business attire who rides the bus so other business people who don’t think of transit as being for them recognize it’s for everyone.

This is social marketing at work. Why not for bikes, which are such a great tool to make you feel better about your self-image regardless of whether you fit someone’s abstract “ideal”?

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23 Responses to “Wearing Real Clothes: A Radical Political Statement”

  1. No one in Paris would be having this conversation. Everyone looks great — both men and women — riding in their everyday clothes. You rarely see the spandex and cycle jersey look in Paris as you do in the States. This discussions is ridiculous. Just wear what you want when you ride. No one is oppressing you. Plus if you are into cycling you pay more attention to the bike people are riding anyway.

  2. I wear bike shorts to ride to work-because it is too long to ride without that cushy for my tushy-sometimes I put a skirt on over them-becasue I like skirts, not because someone tells me I should wear a skirt. If I am cruising around my hood, I wear whatever I feel like wearing.

    And no one will ever accuse me of being fit and trim. lol.

    Sandra B

  3. Well, when I was 5 I rebelled against wearing dresses because I felt they were too girly. But as an adult I’ve decided that skirts and dresses are amazingly comfortable, and if I want to ride my bike in one, I will. If someone wants to consider that a political statement, fine. But really it is just about comfort. Men have nothing to do with it, Maxim. The next day I’ll probably be in spandex for a training ride. No agenda other than my own fitness there, either. Perhaps people should just be allowed to dress themselves as they see fit without the judgmental commentary.

  4. Cycling in coming back into style strong my state because of the economy…but that doesn’t mean everyone can drop $80 for a bike jersey and $90 for bike shorts! I love and appreciate my high end bike clothes – they keep me warm/cool/dry with their nifty technologies, and that makes its own fashion statement to the amateur, 60 mi rides-for-fun cycling crowd. But for the 3-10 mi just-for-fun bikers, who needs all that expense? Also, on a fashion note, has anyone seen a biking Levi shorts in action? http://www.7×7.com/style-design/levis-launches-commuter-series-tailored-demands-urban-cyclists

  5. Sara, having a major manufacturer like Levi come out with bike-comfy (maybe?) clothing gives us hope. Biking will be much more mainstream when it’s easy to find clothing that feels comfortable and doesn’t mark you as somehow “different”. No one can pick drivers out of a crowd, right?

    We’d argue you can bike in all kinds of regular clothes (skirts being ideal, really) but some items–in particular pants with heavy seams–need to be rethought and retailored. We can hope Levi’s did this; haven’t had the chance to try them on and throw a leg over the top tube yet.

    Well said, Cindy & Sandra! Wear what you like and enjoy the ride.

  6. I began commuting to work in January of this year, and around town on weekends. I’ve not bought any bike-specific clothing and won’t until I get a bike for distance riding – even then, I’ll avoid spandex like the plague. I’m a middle-aged woman, slender but not so fit. I don’t wear tight clothing nor low cut blouses – on or off the bike.

    Answering your questions:
    i occasionally look at cyclechic but just for fun. chances are most of those folks don’t drop loads on their clothes – thrift shopping is still in vogue.
    i’m happy to see anyone on a bike. that said, i find that lycra-clad riders rarely acknowledge me on the road though other street-clothed commuters usually do.

    • Thanks, Crystal.

      Here in Spokane I’m pleased to say that many of the Lycra/Spandex riders are friendlier in acknowledging other folks on bikes, although as I say that I think it’s more common if I’m also in kit for a weekend ride versus regular clothing for work. Wondering if there are some age elements in play too–don’t know that I’d say every young hipster in street clothes I’ve passed has waved (and it’s also not 100% that they don’t wave).

      People on bikes unite! Let’s all wave at each other even if we appear to be dressed as members of different tribes.

  7. I rant about wearing ordinary clothing: http://forums.teamestrogen.com/showthread.php?t=46431 I’ve acquired enough cycling clothing, I no longer have to buy any for awhile.

    Hence, for me to cycle in streetwear, especially to work is not good. I spend enough money on nice clothing off bike because it’s tough to find clothing my size @ petite. I need to make such clothing last and look good.

    So I’m happy to change to wear cycling shorts ..or at least walking shorts, etc.

    I haven’t looked at a cycling chic website/blog in over a yr…to look specifically at chic clothing. No need. I just look at the Paris fashions on the runway on TV, magazines.

    I also used to sew 80% of my wardrobe for over 10 years before cycling passion bit me. So I am a picky consumer now…and most definitely don’t feel like staining/ripping a nicely constructed garment.

  8. I think it all depends on the purpose of the ride. For my full ride to work (or a training/exercise oriented ride), I wear workout clothes, because it’s 20 miles. If I’m just riding the mile to the Metro, which is my normal work transportation, it’s regular work clothes. If I’m leading a community ride, I wear a t-shirt and shorts/jeans to communicate the “you don’t need anything fancy to bike for fun or transportation” message.

    As for spandex/lycra, don’t write off its usefulness! If you’re only going a couple miles, it’s not necessary, but in the summer it’s a godsend for the way it minimizes rubbing (in comparison to gym shorts that ride up, for example).

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