Monday, February 6, 2012

New Perspectives on Hemlines

In a local clothing shop yesterday I overheard a conversation between two young women.
Young Woman 1: This dress is cute, but I totally can't wear it on my bike (lifts hem and stretches it to show how narrow it is).
Young Woman 2: Yeah it sucks when a skirt is too tight and I can't bike in it. I'm like always looking for A-lines and pleats now.
YM1: Yeah I know! Or pants.
YM2: Nah I'm not really into pants. Oh but the stretchy miniskirts are good too.
YM1: Oh yeah! I just saw some over there (points at some shelves and they walk off in that direction).
Eavesdropping on this exchange, a few things went through my mind. First, that cycling really is becoming an ordinary thing in our area. These young women - the way they dressed, carried themselves, talked - did not stand out from other women their age; there was nothing identifying them as part of a cycling "subculture." And yet both used bikes to get around. That is like kind of cool, right?

Second, to me this conversation underscores the fact that women's attire - more so than men's - really does call for "bikability" considerations. There are some in the cycle chic camp who argue that we can cycle in absolutely all of our ordinary clothing, and that to look for cycling-specific features is to overly complicate things. But in my experience, even the most stylish women on bikes do not always feel that way. Skirts can be too narrow, trousers can be too constricting, shoes can be slippery, even blouses and jackets can pull at the shoulder seams making cycling uncomfortable (a co-worker in Vienna once tore her top this way cycling to work). Much of this has to do with the fact that apparel designed for women is more form-fitting than that designed for men; there is simply less leeway and less give. Women's apparel also tends to be made of more delicate, flimsier fabrics, more prone to wear and tear. For most women I know who ride a bike, cycling-specific considerations play an important role in their wardrobe selection even if their clothing appears "ordinary" (i.e. not cycling-specific) to the outside observer.

But the more interesting question for me, is that of whether and how clothing manufacturers will respond to cycling-specific demands of their target market, as this increasingly becomes a popular concern. I am not talking about designing cycling-specific lines of clothing; that would be unnecessary. But how about simply designating existing articles of clothing as "bike friendly" when appropriate? Particularly when it comes to online shopping, I think that could be such a useful feature that I am surprised no one has done it yet. When ordinary women start to choose hemlines with cycling in mind, this could be the beginning of something interesting.

56 comments:

  1. I don't see much utility in having cycling specific labeling on everyday clothing. Women who bike can figure out for themselves whether a particular style works for them and their bike setup. I would not be able to ride in most skirts on a diamond frame, but some people do, and are comfortable doing so. Perhaps an indicator of hem circumference would be helpful, but only slightly. General style notes like "A line" are just as useful. Cyclists may be a significant market here, but nationally, they're still a tiny fraction of the customer base.

    Not that I was ever very into them, but I've pretty much eliminated pencil skirts from my wardrobe, just because I never wore them except when I wasn't riding my bike. I do have a couple of things I wear specifically if I am taking the T (a lovely suede skirt that I can't bear to give up).

    In general though my clothing preferences are more about my lifestyle than about fashion trends, I know that I like to be active in my normal clothes- not just biking, but walking fast, having a free range of motion, and I select clothes from the larger body of "normal" clothes that fit those requirements.

    I don't know that chic cycle chic people (other perhaps than Mikael) really insist that you can cycle in any clothing. See Dottie's post on the ball gown. But the range of clothes that you can be comfortable wearing on the bike is larger than some people might think.

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    1. I love pencil skirts and look good in them compared to other skirts, so for me eliminating them has been the one annoying thing about adjusting my wardrobe for cycling.

      As far as labeling/designation goes, I did not mean it entirely as a service for cyclists who can't decide for themselves, but almost more like a gimmick that would make the shop look "hip" while also spreading the notion both locally and globally (via online sales) that normal women who buy normal clothes ride bikes. Increasingly, bikes are used as props in clothing stores, already creating the "cool" affiliation between their clothing and cycling. Designating pieces as cycling-friendly could further that idea in a way that benefits multiple parties.

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    2. What do you mean by gimmick exactly, that it will not really be cycling friendly?

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    3. No. Let me try to express myself more clearly.

      Cycler wrote: "Women who bike can figure out for themselves whether a particular style works for them and their bike setup."

      Yes, of course they (we) can. But fashion marketing, even at the retail level, is really about giving people ideas and inspiration. For instance, notice that in their online stores trendy shops have clothing and accessories arranged not just according to type of garment (i.e. skirts, pants, jackets, etc.) but increasingly also according to activity or more abstract category - such as "lounge," "day to evening," and so on. Do we need the shop to tell us that a black dress and a pastel cardigan can be paired to wear day to evening? No, but it's fun to browse the looks and creating these categories benefits both the retailer and the shopper. That is the sort of thing I had in mind with respect to "bikable" clothing.

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  2. 100 years ago when cycling first became popular, it led to a change in fashion... would not be surprised to see the same happen today. Perhaps a trend towards looser fitting clothes?

    On a side note: a friend of mine jokes about starting a clothing line of pants where the right leg is pre-made to be shorter.

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  3. I think this is a general problem with women's clothing, that it's often not practical even for walking. No pockets, gimmicky non-functional fastenings, neck lines that gape, nasty synthetic fabrics (not technical synthetics, just ones that feel like they're going to be a fire hazard), shoes that pinch ... need I go on? If I can't run for the bus in something, it's just not going to work for me - and there's very little I can run for the bus in but not cycle in.

    Given the weather I have to deal with, when it might rain at any minute and everything's at least a 30min ride away, I find my best bet is outdoor clothing - not cycle specific but either hiking wear or hunting wear - after all that's what tweed was originally designed for. Fortunately I rarely have to be smart any more.

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    1. The lack of pockets in women's clothing is a whole historical/philosophical can of worms. I hate this and will not carry a "pocketbook" out of principle. Any outfit I wear must have a pocket for at least my debit card, phone and keys.

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    2. I confess, I got up early yesterday morning to stand in line at Target for their Jason Wu diffusion line. In addition to the excitement of scoring a couple of my favorite pieces from the collection, I'm VERY excited that most of them have big deep pockets, which is icing on the cake.

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    3. I am so out of the loop when it comes to things like this. Must have a look at these deep pocket pieces. I have sewn my own pockets onto dresses and cardigans, with mixed results.

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    4. Good luck finding anything at this point, but both this:
      http://www.target.com/p/Jason-Wu-for-Target-Poplin-Dress-in-Navy/-/A-13830913

      and This:
      http://www.target.com/p/Jason-Wu-for-Target-Flared-Dress-in-Black-with-Nude-Patent-Belt/-/A-13840102

      have deep pockets

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    5. Pockets: why is this a good thing? On one of my rides wearing my nice banana republic corduroy trousers I managed to tear the back pocket and a bit of the bottom (so that my underwear would have been peeping through had it not been for the waterproof jacket I was wearing) because I managed to snag it on the saddle as I was mounting up at the red light. Maybe I am just a "klutz" as you say in your side of the pond, but now I try to avoid pockets.

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  4. Maybe it's just me, but I do not see any value in the women whose conversation you describe representing female cyclists. Must it all boil down to shopping for cute skirts?

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    1. Not sure I understand. Are you critical of the fact they are out shopping, of the fact that they care about looking nice, or of the language I portrayed them as using? I think there is great value in women of all types enjoying cycling for transportation.

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  5. I prefer to wear skirts. I look specifically for skirts that do not restrict pedaling, but it is sometimes difficult to know how a skirt will behave on a bike.

    Case in point: I recently purchased a denim just-above-the knee skirt with a slit in the back. In fitting room, I could lift my knee to my waist while standing. Perfect!

    On the skirt's first ride (fortunately on the way home) the seam above the slit tore open when I hopped onto the saddle! I sewed the skirt back together and applied iron-on patches to the inside for added strength. So far so good.

    I wish women's clothes were made of tougher fabrics. Even denim can be flimsy.

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  6. "even blouses and jackets can pull at the shoulder seams making cycling uncomfortable (a co-worker in Vienna once tore her top this way cycling to work)"

    Wardrobe malfunction! (Sorry - couldn't resist this.)

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    1. Yes, an emergency sewing brigade was formed, as she was running late for a lecture. It wasn't a terribly revealing malfunction though - the long sleeve basically ripped out of the armhole at the seam.

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  7. I think that conversation bodes really well for cycling. New York has its supercommuter men and women with lots of high-vis and bike specific gear and other bike tribes with attendant bike tribe clothing, but most people do seem to bike in normal clothes.

    Pencil skirts are the only ones I really am not able to cycle in, which sucks because they are my best skirt shape. I can wear them if they are very mini, but I only feel comfortable in those in winter with dark tights.

    I definitely own more wool now. I had the boot legs of ibex and icebreaker wool pants tailored from bootleg into skinny to fit more with my style and I now own one "technical" raincoat that doesn't look like a technical raincoat. Other than that, everything is the same. I feel like I would have made more style changes if I hadn't already changed my style when I had my son. Lower heeled shoes and more stretchy item, but still me.

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    1. "I can wear them if they are very mini, but I only feel comfortable in those in winter with dark tights."

      I would wear that other than Tranny Night if I could get away with it.

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  8. I wear a skirt more often than not on my bike because a) I can wear fleece tights under them to keep warm in the winter and b) they’re so much cooler in the summer. I don’t pass up clothes or shoes because they’re not “bike-able,” but that’s because always I change when I get to the office. (And, yes, my commuting costume includes a skirt.)

    I do try to integrate bikeability into my sewing projects as much as possible, be it adding pockets, pleats, extra ease, or what have you. My holy grail is to come up with a pencil skirt that I can wear on my bike. I’ve tried a couple different things so far with varying levels of success.

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    1. Your cycling-specific clothes which you then change out of upon arriving to work also include a skirt? That is awesome!

      I've worn fleece and wool leggings under skirt-suits and very dressy clothing, and no one could tell they were not normal opaque tights. I have to wear them with boots that cover the ankles though.

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    2. Right! More women need to know how warm and discreet fleece athletic tights can be.

      I have a couple of wool skirts of varying length for winter (mini and knee-length depending on how cold it is), and a couple beat-up skirts I've converted from well-loved pairs of pants for the summer. I think it's a much better look than spandex-butt, and they go better with my Dr. Martens. :)

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    3. I agree! Skirts are the most comfortable for me while biking in both a physical and fashionable sense. That is, they're super comfy + I don't have to worry about changing clothes for various events that I bike to because of the spandex-butt. I mostly shop at thrift stores for non-technical clothing, so I'm not sure where/when my favorite elastic pencil skirt-esque items came from, but I have seen similar ones at Urban Outfitters. I am usually fine with regular leggings which I find really soothing for soome reason (I like being in tight spaces?) + tall socks, because I can't stand the itch of wool leggings. Will have to try non-Under Armour thermals soon!

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  9. Hah, this is when I'm thankful that my favorite style of skirt has always been full. Every time I try to look at dresses on Modcloth, for instance, and I'm not looking at "evening" dresses, I wish the skirts and dresses had about another yard of fabric in them. SIGH.

    I was never a fan of pencil skirts, but I previously did love boot-cut and/or flared pants, and most of those disappeared from my wardrobe pretty quickly after I started cycling everywhere! And I previously hated "capri" style pants, but now I own several pairs of knickers, even though they make me look even shorter. Oh well.

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    1. The evolution of pants in my wardrobe is identical yours. I am short legged, but I love all my tapered jeans/pants/ capris now when I disliked them before I started cycling

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    2. I have found that whether capris make legs look shorter depends on the cut. The ones that hit mid-calf or lower are the worst, particularly the "ankle cut." But those that hit the upper part of the calf can be surprisingly flattering, particularly with sandals and no socks.

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    3. "but I previously did love boot-cut and/or flared pants, and most of those disappeared from my wardrobe pretty quickly after I started cycling everywhere!"

      i KNOW! such a shame. i could sort of get away with it when the bike had a decent chainguard, but when i switched to a bike without one, i learned to love tights or silk long underwear all winter long.

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    4. I resisted the skinny jeans/pants trend until I started cycling. Now I'm thankful that they are so readily available. I even bought a pair of Anthro jegging cords with elastic waist and that will be our little secret. They are cozy and warm enough wear on long road rides and I can slip into a restaurant or coffe shop looking pretty normal. I love full skirts and dresses, too. 50s style, belted are my favorites. I only buy clothing that works on the bike now.

      Mona

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  10. lately when I shop for clothing I have added another dimension to my fit test. Int he past it was look at all angles and perhaps sit down to make sure pants don't low ride etc. Now I put my arms out in front of me as if hokding onto handle bars to see how the jacket or top fits when in that postion. Does the back stretch uncomfortably? Do the sleeves ride up too much ( more important for a jacket for warmth. And with bottoms esp skirts I lift my legs up in a pretend pedal action to see if I have enough stretch etc. It's funny. I did try on a skirt once that I loved. Yet it was tapered at the hem and like a soft pencil skirt. I loved this skirt a lot but choose not to buy it. but I look better in full skirts like April so that's good for me.

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  11. I appreciate that women's clothes offer some unique challenges when used for cycling. But men have some issues too: Jeans are often too tight, or the cuffs brush against the chain wheel. Non-cleated footwear can be a problem, especially because shoe laces are a hazard for getting wrapped in drivetrain components. How about a guest post from the Co-Habitant on men's cycling garb?

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    1. Vented dress shirts, Schoeller pants - for I am Action Man.

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  12. Nona Varnado is doing some really interesting things: http://www.nonavarnado.com/

    And Modcloth had a cute collection last year that was cycle-specific.

    But I would love to see more well made, high quality options.

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    1. nonavarnado: you mean at those prices, they aren't well made, high quality? Ouch!

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    2. That's not what I mean at all. Nona's goods are designed by her and well made. She deserves to be paid for her time, i.e. make a living wage from her work.

      I'm saying that I would like to see additional companies in this market.

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  13. I much prefer to wear skirts to ride. I hate the feeling of seams between me and the saddle. Now that it is winter, I do leggings or silk long johns (they look like leggings) under my regular skirts. Now that I am riding more and more, I want more skirts in my wardrobe. My perfect skirt is A line, but also stretchy but without the bunching of typical elastic waist.

    I'd also like to try some cycling specific pants, but they seem costly for something I may not like.

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  14. Guest post: Meh, it doesn't really matter. I think I could theoretically cycle for a short distance in any and all of my outdoor outfits, on my main transport bike.

    If I had a difficult/long/hilly bike commute, I wouldn't like it as much, or at all.

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  15. I choose everything for my wardrobe for its bikeability now. I normally prefer to wear trousers and jeans, but I have found that skirts (or dresses) and tights are much more comfortable, they just feel so much better around my calves than pants. For summer, my favourite outfit has been a short dress with knee length tights under it, it has huge pockets which I find really useful for carrying my phone for easy access if I want to take a photo. I have a skirtguard on my bike, but oddly, I never really need it as my skirts and dresses stay well in front of it. It makes me think that they were really only useful for those huge Victorian dresses which were both full and long.

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    1. More pockets! I must be missing something. Are these worn on the front? Isn't this uncomfortable if you are leaning forward?

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    2. Pockets in skirts and dresses are often on-seam, and internal- that is, there is a slit along the side which opens into a pouch into which you put your hand/ keys/ phone, but no external flaps etc. which might catch on things.
      Many womens' dresses could have such discreet pockets, but they are omitted, perhaps because designers want to sell purses :)

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    3. I sit fairly upright but even when I am leaning it is not a problem for me, the pockets are a bit to the side from the front.

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  16. Before I biked I would test clothes to see if I could sit down, walk, breathe, raise my arms to steering-wheel height comfortably. And just because now I make sure I can bike in clothes I don't really consider it that extraordinary to want clothes I can go about my day in. It's just different movements, and yes I sit in the dressing room and do pedaling movements. And just like before I biked- if it didn't pass my movement test I wouldn't buy the clothes. Part of fashion design is allowing for people to move freely. However one thing I notice when buying clothes is that I need to account for a certain type of biking. Theoretically I could bike in anything, but I find biking in US cities requires more aggressive and assertive movements so I avoid clothes that would make me feel unsafe (overly restricting, unable to move quickly, turn my head, hop off my bike fast.) I if I could be more relaxed while biking I would have even fewer clothing concerns.

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    1. Now that you mention it, I remember that when I used to drive shoes used to be a consideration. I used to wear high heel slip-ons a lot, and in some of them I would have trouble pressing the gas or the brake pedal, because they would slip, so I stopped buying those types of shoes. Forgot all about that now.

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  17. Well, the seats of my pants wear out very quickly. Years ago when pants did not include lycra and were made of better quality materials, this did not ever happen. Now I have a pile of pants I cannot wear until I go about sewing patches on them. I prefer skinny pants because I do not worry about getting pants in the cranks etc.., but sometimes pants are too tight, especially with the long underwear.

    I have to be careful with skirts as some silky ones have ended up in the chain, rear cassettes etc and gunked up and ripped with chain oil all over. There are definitely skirts that I cannot pedal very well in and would have to be on a step through or loop frame bike to ride with some sense of modesty-the skirts have to be hiked up a bit. I used to have safety pins for long flowy skirts, but I don't really wear them anymore-too much bother on a bike.
    Also, sometimes the back of my coat lining gets caught under the back of the brooks saddle loops and rip rip rip!
    Shoes-while I did see a girl going for gold up a steep hill in very stylish/useless high heels the other day, I would not recommend biking in heels.
    I was in Vancouver on the weekend and there were people biking EVERYWHERE. It's common place, not unsual or weird...and it's a fashion show seeing people wearing their every day clothes while biking-as opposed to the lycra leggings and neon visy vest leagues.

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    1. Try using iron on patches on the inside of your pants, it has worked for me when my jeans have worn through.

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  18. Oh yes, of course, I wear lots and lots of wool. Classic, stylish wool. Icebreaker, ibex, random cashmere from second hand store. Wool coats... The ibex Lexie coat is beautiful, warm and great for cycling except for when the back gets caught on the saddle loops of the brooks saddles...
    Oh and I got some of the merino wool tops from Rivendell and they are awesome! The factory they bought from is closing so if you want some lovely merino wool tops, get them from rivendell before they disappear for good. The label is too cute!
    I have a pile of wool pants to tailor and several wool skirts. I regret that my job is a rough job so I cannot really wear my skirts and dressses which is what I would prefer to wear. I'm not so big on the skirt pant combo that is so popular in neo tribal faery land where I dwell. Nor would I want to wreck my skirts and dresses at work.
    So I only have the occasional day in the winter where I can wear a skirt or dress. I have how many icebreaker dresses? they are perfect for cycling(ibex too). A tip: look for stuff on sale! I got a blue icebreaker dress and a red one on sale because they were last ones left. They are a bit big for me, so will size them down to fit and improve as needed.
    The stylish cyclist also needs sewing skills or at least knows someone who sews.

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  19. 'Much of this has to do with the fact that apparel designed for women is more form-fitting than that designed for men; there is simply less leeway and less give.'

    So why not buy a bigger size or a looser style?

    Women voluntarily choose to wear restrictive and uncomfortable clothing for much of the time and whatever they are doing.

    I'm not sure this is particularly a cycling matter.

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    1. I've found that if I wear a size bigger, the pants are droopy in all the wrong ways. From belly button to inseam to my back is too big and then all the extra fabric rubs. While sagging pants are all the rage for some groups, sagging pants on a bike isn't comfy.

      I've also found that pants from some manufacturers are too tight in the thigh to bike with. They fit great everywhere else, but as soon as you sit on a bike, they constrict around the thigh. Jeans with a bit of spandex in them are nice but are found more in plus sizes. Lucky for us plus size ladies, but not for the size 4's out there.

      Meanwhile Vaude makes Coolmax jeans that dry quickly specifically for sports and biking. The new Levi Messenger series were supposedly really good too. Ralpha makes some lovely button down shirts as well. Some manufacturers are getting the idea, but all for men. Where's the female cycle-chic love??

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  20. This Jcrew wool skirt gets top marks from me for fall/winter cycling. It stays put but doesn't restrict movement at all.
    http://www.jcrew.com/womens_category/skirts/solids/PRDOVR~47315/47315.jsp

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  21. I think it completely can be a cycling matter, as well as simply a fashion matter. My bike-to-be is a men's frame, as my husband (who has made it for me from an old frame) couldn't find a women's frame I liked or was small enough.

    This has therefore automatically ruled out any skirts above a certain length or a certain level of fittedness, for both safety and modesty reasons!

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  22. Best wardrobe and best tailoring goes to dancers and physical comics. The wardrobe cannot interfere with the performance. Fred Astaire could do all the amazing things he did in a conventional men's suit (a good one), the women always have to try harder.

    It's entirely about quality of tailoring. And the effort put into the tailoring. One of the classic vaudeville showstoppers was the gender-reversal skit in which the true sex of the performers was not revealed until the performers take their bows. In which case clothes did make the man.

    Hopefully tailoring does not become a lost art. We'll have gender equality when women can buy functional clothes when they want them, and I don't have to work so bloody hard to find something sexy that isn't fruity.

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    1. 'We'll have gender equality when women can buy functional clothes when they want them'

      It's nothing to do with gender equality - or sex equality as some of us still call it.

      It's more to do with women voluntarily choosing to buy restrictive clothes for all sorts of activities because they place a much greater importance on appearing fahionable and trendy than nearly all men.

      This can be seen even for the most mundane activities such as walking down the street. Many women freely choose high heeled or otherwise uncomfortable or unsuitable shoes while men usually wear shoes which are suited to the job.

      I know several men who cycle commute short distances in work clothes - those clothes consisting of a relatively loose fitting shirt, trousers and jacket. Those clothes are also practical for work, being comfortable and unrestrictive.

      If some vain or dandyish men chose to cycle commute in tight shirts, trousers and jackets people would laugh if they complained their attire was not suitable for cycling and that clothing manufacurers had some sort of responsibility to make them close fitting everyday clothes which were comfortable to wear on a bike and at work.

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    2. Pete--your position that women may dress and look just as men do without any sacrifices in personal and professional lives comes across as naive, or perhaps disingenuous.

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    3. I think the issue is more of fashion designers having adjusted to most Americans having a sedentary lifestyle.

      There's no reason that clothing can't be close fitting and comfortable... likewise, there's no reason it can't be loose fitting and fashionable.

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    4. Midi, if anything, as far as professional style office based work goes, women already have a wider selection of cycling suitable work clothing then men.

      Men have a suit, shirt and tie - dress which is virtually compulsory in most offices.

      To cycle in such clothing, it has to be loose and comfortable.

      Women can also choose to wear the female version of this outfit for cycling - often with the choice of adding the tie or not, something usually denied to men.

      Also women usually have the choice of a comfortable, cycling friendly skirt instead of loose trousers. Men don't.

      Additionally, even today, many offices allow women to wear a much greater variety of clothes at work than men, of all sorts of styles as they vary with women's fashions, and many of those styles are loose and eminently suitable for cycling.

      So, as far as work and cycling clothes are concerned, if there is any sex discrimination going on, it is against men.

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  23. i like number 14 personally.

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  24. I agree with other readers that the pencil skirt is a conundrum in that it can be very flattering but hard to bike in. My solution is to wear leggings for the ride and hike my skirt up to my waist, then pull the skirt down at the destination and pull off the leggings. Not ideal, but a workable solution.

    Switching from a road bike to an upright bike for daily riding really liberated me from a lot of wardrobe restrictions. For example, I love droopy V-necks but always felt like I was flashing everybody by leaning over so far while riding.

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