"Should I wear padded bicycle shorts?" is one question I get asked a lot by women, especially since photos occasionally reveal my wearing them. As with most comfort issues, there is no straight answer here. Everybody is different, and the best I can do is provide feedback about my own experience.
When I cycle casually or for transportation I do not wear cycling shorts. It is crucial to me that my transportation bikes be comfortable and upright enough to ride in regular clothing, and I do not ride them strenuously. I also do not find that padded shorts are a solution for saddle discomfort. If a saddle causes me pain, the shorts can at best mask it for a brief time, but the saddle itself will still need to be addressed.
I began wearing bicycle shorts when I got into roadcycling. In that context, I find them beneficial, in that they provide just the right amount of compression and cushioning. It is difficult to explain why this is necessary, until you yourself get to the point where it makes sense. For a while I rode wearing non-cycling-specific leggings, but ultimately did not find them sufficient. The tight, stretchy fabric of bicycle shorts - unflattering as it may be - makes the muscles in my legs feel better when I pedal vigorously. The slight padding (and minimalism is key here) creates just enough of a buffer zone between me and the saddle during active rides.
Ibex El Fito wool cycling knickers since last August, and have since also bought a pair of their Seree shorts. I think the version of the knickers I have is last year's model or older (I bought it from a discount retailer), because the currently produced version features a new pad design that is less noticeable from the back. In both the new and the older design, the padding is minimalistic and feels comfortable. Overall, I am happy with the Ibex shorts and knickers, and I alternate between them depending on the weather and on which pair is clean.
Harlot Scarlet X Tech knickers via a trade with the manufacturer. These knickers are stretchy nylon and spandex (to which I am not sensitive), and are meant mostly for mountain biking. I thought they could work nicely for touring because of all the pockets and the relaxed tailoring.
While the Harlot knickers are well-made, flattering, and do a good job disguising the padding, I have not been wearing them much after the initial "Oh, neat" reaction. I think the reason is that I have no need for this particular style of cycling shorts. If I am going to wear something padded, then I am going to be roadcycling and I want the shorts to be tighter, more stretchy, less constricting, and without any extras such as pockets. Likewise, if I am commuting or just cycling with a friend in the park, then I don't need cycling-specific attire at all. But if you can use cycling shorts that are made like regular capri pants, only with padding, knickers such as these and the ones by Chrome I wrote about earlier, could work nicely.
Do you wear padded cycling shorts? What kind and for what type of cycling? I am especially curious about any experiences with Smartwool, Icebreaker, and other wool cycling shorts - particularly for women.