Thursday, June 18, 2015

Hysteria and the Cyclist's Wardrobe

Untitled
For a brief period in the early 1990s my family lived in New York City. As a pre-teen hitherto brought up in obscure central European towns, there was much I found curious about my new surroundings. But one image in particular burned into my mind's eye as iconic of the American metropolis: Ladies in skirt-suits, speed-walking to work, wearing running shoes and thick cotton socks over sheer, sometimes shimmery, pantyhose. From their manicured hands swung plastic bags containing stiletto-heeled pumps.

"A more ridiculous look I cannot imagine," my mother declared, stunned by the unchicness of it. But soon enough, she too was pounding the pavement in LA Gear high-tops and white slouchy socks, maroon power suit straining at the seams from the rigours of her sporty new gait.

Far from unchic, to my 10 year old self it was a look that signified glamour - a functional, sporty, executive sort of glamour that seemed distinctly and exotically American. I looked forward to such a time that I too would be old enough to rush out the door and speedwalk to work in this delightful sartorial concoction. Of course by the time I was old enough, comfortable heels had been invented and the look had gone out of style, with only reruns of Law & Order to keep it alive and feed the nostalgia.

And yet in a sense I did come to fulfill those fin de si├Ęcle fashion yearnings. This was a thing I realised one day, as I pedaled 14 miles to a meeting - dressed in a skirt, blazer, tights, and clipless cycling shoes, a pair of heels tucked into my handlebar bag. In the interest of saving time and arriving looking presentable, I tend to use a roadbike for long transportation journeys. Out of this practice developed what is essentially the cycling equivalent of speed-walking to work in a skirt-suit and sneakers.

Given the similarity of these behaviours and their shared underlying logic, it is interesting that the choice to infuse one's everyday wardrobe with cycling-specific concessions is politicised in a way that making wardrobe concessions to walking (or driving, for that matter) is not.

Among cyclists themselves, at one end of the spectrum there are those who believe that cycling-specific clothes of any kind have no place in two-wheeled transportation. Thus, by the mere act of donning a cycling cap - or, heaven forbid, a pair of clipless shoes - on their journey to work, a cyclist contaminates the realm of bicycle transport with elements of sport, thereby betraying the cause of Making Transportation Cycling Look Normal. At the other end there are those who believe that wearing anything but cycling-specific attire (and full safety regalia) on a bicycle is the impractical, silly, and irresponsible choice of fashion victims who shall never be "real" cyclists.

Granted, most of our views - even if they do tend to lean in one direction over the other - are considerably more moderate. But the extreme view holders tend to be quite vocal, both in the media and in real life situations, to the point that nearly every cyclist I know has a story of being criticised - often by none other than fellow cyclists - for how they dress on the bike.

In my 6 years of cycling for transportation I too have been approached with all manner of criticisms and unsolicited advice pertaining to my wheeling outfits. These have ranged from being told that cycling in a skirt is dangerous, to being asked sarcastically whether I really "need to wear that outfit in the city" (lycra/wool; on my way home from a club ride). And as I tend to mix things up and engage in different kinds of cycling, I get it from both camps of cyclists; as well as the non-cyclists.

Oddly, in the course of my 18 adult years of "transportational walking," not once have I been scolded for my wardrobe choices, no matter how misguided. Why, to think of the wasted opportunities for Concerned Citizen types to inform me that my 3" heels with their narrow toe box would ruin my feet! or that my pencil skirt constrained my gait to the point of inefficiency! ...or, for that matter, that wearing track suit bottoms, filthy running shoes and a torn Pixies t-shirt - with a threadbare blazer thrown over it all to "tie the look together" - looked untidy, not edgy.

Critiques of the cyclist's wardrobe are not really about concerns over what is safe or practical or socially appropriate. Neither are they about the intrusion of sport into everyday fashion, or vice versa, as the line between the two has long been blurred. The baseball cap, the tennis shoe, the golf shirt, the ski jacket and the yoga legging are just a few examples of the myriad of athletic garments that have infiltrated everyday fashion without much fanfare. Even what we think of as prim and proper clothing today, often either has its origin in, or is inspired by, athletic wear of some sort. Why, even the so-called sport coat - which today is practically formalwear - was at some point actually used for sport.

The cyclist's wardrobe evokes reactions that suggest a willful forgetting of this. They are reactions that cross over from the realm of the rational into the realm of the hysterical. We are lycra-clad rogues. We are clueless high-heeled bikezillas. We are cutoff-short-wearing hipsters. We are the hi-viz jacket and helmet-cam brigade. We are "MAMIL"s. The looks, diverse as they may be, are somehow central to the scrutiny. And the scrutiny comes not just from outside; we are equally likely to turn on each other. In the shared social imagination it is as if the cyclist's appearance is credited with an almost uncanny power to annoy, corrupt and disrupt, so that its potential for influence is seen as a special sort of threat - the sort that combines the dangerous with the ridiculous.

Is it ridiculous, I ask myself, to wear clipless shoes with a suit, while toting a pair of heels into which I will later change in some alleyway? Is it ridiculous to cycle 14 miles to a meeting at all, for that matter? It can feel that way sometimes. But it can also feel excruciatingly normal.

Now: where can I get me some scrunchy socks? Perhaps in a hi-viz yellow...


51 comments:

  1. Oooh - scrunchy socks in high-vis yellow. That sounds like a kickstarter.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Velouria, I really enjoyed this post. And I'm certainly not immune to making such critiques. When I see one of my fellow commuters baring the gap between his glutes above a pair of low-waisted jeans, I call out, "Dude, pull 'em up! I don't want to see that!" When a pretty young woman goes by, draped in flowing scarves on a 3-speed, it's all I can do not to mutter something about Isadora Duncan. I perceive them as threats to decency on one hand, and to safety on another. What are they doing that's so offensive, really? Crack may be whack, but I haven't seen a scarf get caught in the spokes yet. Maybe I project onto these easily-accessible others, who are like me and not me, my own fears that I want for safety and style. Maybe it's a kind of magical thinking, one that goes back to what still seems the magical act of balancing on two wheels, held against a fear that, if I don't dress "right," I may break the spell that holds me up, and tumble headlong into traffic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Isadora Duncan? Wow. I sense a bit of Upton Sinclair here. Incidentally, I ride flat pedals all the time except when doing a Century (or longer) timed ride.

      Delete
  3. 'nearly every cyclist I know has a story of being criticised - often by none other than fellow cyclists - for how they dress on the bike.'

    Goodness, I'm wondering what world you live in that you've encountered such a group. Are you referring to mostly women? I'm sorta scratching my head with this post but perhaps it's because I'm a guy. Or maybe it's city cyclists who are most vocal? Or east coast riders? I've ridden a lot and have never encountered nor heard of this kind of hysteria or criticism as being a big or frustrating topic. You're saying it is? The neat thing about how much cycling has grown in the last forty years is the variety of bikes and costumes I see everyday. And the overriding attitude seems to be one of support rather than criticism when conversations occur during the course of a normal day on the transportation circuit. We seek each other out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed. I've only encountered these attitudes on the internet.

      Delete
    2. Daily transportation rider in NYC. I get comments all the time about my wardrobe choices while riding my bike. Most range from 'concern' to 'amazement' and even sometimes; compliments at my choice to ride while wearing a dress/skirt or heels. Since I ride throughout the winter too, I've had people question my choice to wear a fur coat while riding (frankly, it's the warmest thing I own and I hate to be cold). And of course, every few weeks I get the ubiquitous "concern" regarding my choice to ride without a helmet. The comments come from men, women, young, old, cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. Until daily transportation cycling becomes the norm here, I realize that the comments won't let up but at least I have noticed that as daily cycling has increased, the ignorant comments have decreased somewhat. It's not just an east coast thing either. I get the same comments when I am visiting family in Detroit. LAst year while visiting family in Detroit, I participated in Slow Roll. Along the ride, it started to rain so I pulled out my umbrella and a passing cyclist chastised me for my choice, telling me it was dangerous. I told him he should visit the Netherlands and try sharing his advice with cyclists there.

      Delete
    3. More than once on tour fellow cycle tourists questioned my not wearing cleats or lycra type clothing.

      Some fellow commuters and people calling from cars during my commute tell me to wear a helmet.

      It has never occurred to me to comment on what other cyclists wear or do not wear.

      Delete
    4. If I get grief from a female for not wearing a helmet I often ask what their position is on a woman's right to have an abortion. To date, all have responded that they support it ("Keep you laws off my body", etc). When I point out that they are not keeping their laws/rules off my body, I am met by silence. I have various non-gender-specific replies that I also use. Please, people, mind your own business.

      Delete
    5. Exactly - why would anyone comment? I would find different cycling companions if I was subjected to interrogation about what I wear - I ride alone so I don't know if that is a common experience amongst group cyclists.

      Delete
    6. NYC is a different world. I've been groped, mugged, assisted, criticized, whistled and on and on….It's strange there, but I mostly think of it as heckling. I never got that from my bike friends.

      Delete
    7. I'm sure it has its good points but NYC is not a place I would want to live let alone ride a bike there :(

      Delete
    8. In NYC we have a very popular bike share programme, we have messengers on all sorts of single-speed / fixed gear track bikes, we have delivery people on anything you can imagine from Walmart mountain bikes to road carbon frames, we have people coming to work on Wall Street on steel touring bikes with generator lights, we have a tonne of Bromptons and other assorted folders, including the rare Bike Friday and Moulton, we have people commuting 10 miles on vintage Reynolds and Columbus frames [Peugeot, Cinelli, De Rosa, old Bianchis, Olmos, Benotto], and of course we have the Spandex crowd training whenever/wherever on the latest Tour de France aspiring bicycle.

      Delete
  4. My wife used to wear sneakers walking to work and then change to her dress shoes in the office. But she didn't carry high heels with her. Instead, she had a cabinet in the office full of shoes.

    Interestingly, for me it's exactly the opposite. I don't wear work outfit with casual shoes on my way to work. I wear casual outfit with dress shoes. Now, when it's hot, I ride in regular shorts and t-shirts and I shower and change into my work clothes at work. But I don't replace my shoes. It may look weird on my bike but it works.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Excellent post. It seems that cyclists, more than any other group I have encountered, like to police one another... But perhaps more important for myself, I am trying to develop a wardrobe that is both functional and good-looking. Like the sport coat and the yoga leggings (or think about the horse-riding attire popularized by a certain East Coast fashion designer), there is plenty of cycling attire that could become fashionable in its own right. (No, not the dayglo lycra...) I prefer not to change at all at my destination, even if I am heading to a business meeting, but just arrive presentable in the first place. I actually want to be recognizable as a cyclist, but in a way that inspires others to think about cycling in a positive light.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I am all over that sliding scale. But never once can I recall anyone - fellow cyclist or otherwise - suggesting that some aspect of my hybrid wardrobe might be inappropriate. (I've probably jinxed it now.)

    ReplyDelete
  7. It is interesting how the same clothes can be ignored or derided depending on the venue and audience. I've just cycled back from the pub in my baggy MTB shorts and they were indistinguishable from what other people were wearing there on a balmy summer evening. However turn up to my cycling club run in baggies and the tut-tuts from the die hard roadies would be audible but if the roadies had gone to the pub in their lycra, there would have been a few sniggers from the rest of the punters...

    ReplyDelete
  8. Replies
    1. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/health/diet-fitness/article4450834.ece

      Delete
  9. My goodness, this seems so petty. People really criticize other's wardrobe while bicycling? In person? We're taking the wrong things way too seriously.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Nobody has ever said anything judgmental to my face about what I'm wearing. They may, however, snigger behind my back.

    That's ok - they are behind me.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have never criticized another cyclist's wardrobe, nor have I been criticized. The only argument I have ever made against cycling specific clothing is that it has an air of exclusivity that seems to occasionally discourage adults from returning to cycling.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I use my bike for transportation, I have never bought any item of cycling specific clothing and no-one has ever made a comment to me regarding how I dress - if they did I would just tell them to mind their own business. Transportation cyclists are as varied in attire as any other members of the community - I rather suspect that the Lycra clad clan might be another matter all together and they could be subject to scrutiny by their own kind - perhaps that has something to do with the general sense of competitiveness that is part of their particular cycling pursuits.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suppose the motivation is ensuring group safety, but as with you it seems to me competition cyclists tend to be the most outspoken.

      Delete
    2. Well that would definitely be the case where I live - because for the rest of us cycling is not a fashion statement or a competition in any way, thank goodness.

      Delete
  13. I've never met criticism on my look, but I found that clothes means a lot for myself.
    For example, I do not want just ride my bike but I want visit some places with my friends. And I myself feel so much better when I am dressed in casual clothes and wearing casual shoes... So I switched from clipless pedals which I have used before for 10 years to the platform pedals with regular shoes.
    The same with modern sport bicycles – they are great, but I am not feel comfortable riding them. ANd I don't think that they look ugly, not at all. Just not for me.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I think the sports shoes with office wear began after there was a strike of bus and train drivers in New York and everyone had to work out how to get to work on foot. So the women ditched their heels and a new trend began. Those shoes in your bike basket and beautiful! Definitely worth carrying so you can wear them at the end of the trip. I think arriving by bike to meetings is very cool, especially if you wear something dressy.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I dress for comfort. On a social ride going longer distance I'm probably going to show up with lycra pants and a seersucker cotton top, blowing cool air beneath as I ride, and mountain bike shoes [unclipped] or stiffer-bottomed trainer shoes. I'll probably have an urban helmet with visor to keep sun off.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I've never been criticized, but I've been, perhaps unintentionally, ridiculed. I was catching the bus at the mid point of my commute, as I sometimes did rather than ride the whole way, dressed for the cool fall morning in nice wool knickers, black knee socks, a sober knit jersey, wool cycling cap, and a pair of old Vittoria sheepskin-lined shoes. The woman driving the bus looked me up and down and asked me, "Are you going to a party?" Now, the Vittorias did perhaps look a wee bit fey, being ankle high and because of age having a slight upturn in the toe, but otherwise I thought I looked rather normal. I was so shaken I didn't wear cycling knickers for a year or more afterward.

    Seriously, I think old fashioned cycling kit -- dark wool shorts or tights or knickers, wool jersey not too bright, white or black socks, black shoes without ornament -- is rather decent looking. I also think that long-term cyclists generally work out their own best combination of fashion, comfort, and practicality, and it's obvious that different riders break this down differently.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. US or UK "knickers"? Makes a big difference, here.

      Delete
    2. US type, of course -- I don't carry my costuming to the extreme of the UK type.

      What do y'all call them in the yew kay? Plus fours?

      Very useful garments, withall, IME.

      Delete
  17. I love your heels! Where did you get them?

    Most of my transportation cycling journeys are short or medium-distance, so I'm content to wear mostly regular clothes in the daytime. Though I do use a skirt garter to keep my dress/skirt from flipping up in the wind! And I have learned that one skirt garter isn't enough if wearing a wrap dress, heh. Also, that a full midi-skirt risks getting caught in the spokes. And I am still contemplating whether to cycle in my 3" high Stuart Weitzmans...

    At night, however, I break out a reflective Amphipod xinglet and wear it on top of my regular clothes. I also have reflective tape on my helmet that matches the colour of the helmet, so it doesn't look too out of place in the day but lights me up at night. And on particularly busy roads without bike infrastructure, I go one step further and use Glo Gloves that make my hand signals more visible to drivers.

    So far people are more interested in commenting about my bike than me though!

    ReplyDelete
  18. I judge nobody else, but having started wearing cycling-specific clothing about the time that Mick Taylor became the newest Rolling Stone I am numb to any concern except being comfortable and safe on the bike. In my town half the drivers have the number of their favorite NASCAR driver plastered on their autos and a similar proportion of high school kids are wearing Portland Trailblazer regalia. What's so weird about a rain jacket, SPD shoes and a helmet, fer crissake?

    ReplyDelete
  19. My own clothing choices for cycling tend towards the "normal" end of the spectrum. I only wear workout clothes when riding during the dog days of summer when it's simply too hot for me to cycle to work and be presentable in normal clothes (even then, it's only a workout shirt, and not even cycle-specific; just one of those sweat-wicking shirts). Not once have I criticized anyone for wearing what they want on a bike. I'd much rather see people riding bikes than spend one moment disparaging another person's choices.

    I have yet to try the umbrella trick on rainy days. I might try it next time. It might work better than my current rain jacket.

    ReplyDelete
  20. One would think wearing a torn Pixie's t-shirt and blazer would render you immune to criticism.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Just the other day I saw my wife on the computer ogling a pair of Jimmy Choos with built-in SPD cleats.
    And when I first saw those awesome red shoes in your saddle bag, I thought to myself: "I sure hope Veloria didn't have to drop a house on a witch to get them."

    ReplyDelete
  22. When I'm riding my bike as a workout, I wear cycling clothes and shoes. When I ride my bike as transportation, I dress for the destination. If it's a long or steep transportation ride I might wear cycling clothes or shoes. When I've ridden in heels, I gotten both rude comments: "nice cycling shoes" and weird compliments "how do you do that?"

    The latter makes me laugh because it often comes from someone riding in clipless pedals, which believe me, are much harder to do. I've never fallen due to the heels and you'd be hard pressed to find someone who rides in clipless pedals who hasn't fallen over due to them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I rode clipless exclusively for 25 years and never fell. Why would that happen?

      If clipless has made you fall or if you even feel like they might make you fall don't use them. If the notion that there is something "hard" about clipless even makes any sense to you don't use them.

      I went back to quill pedals simply for convenience and discovered they have a lot of performance advantages. The big one is the large contact area gives more control over the bike. There are definite advantages and disadvantages to each style of pedal. If safety is an issue that overrides any other consideration. There is no performance advantage to lying on the ground bleeding.

      Delete
    2. When I cross-dress I find it difficult to operate the clutch / gas / brake pedals with safety. After all, there's no point getting dolled up if I'm gonna wear flats - UGH.

      This conflates in the myriad minds of the high-heeled into: it's the same, so it must be extremely difficult.

      And the rest of us, having grown large perma-growths on our foreheads having banged our heads on the nearest hard surface, merely go get another drink and/or ridicule the question, depending on how many people of common sense are left in the room.

      Delete
  23. Do whatever you want to do. Don't give a shit whoever does or doesn't like you.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Here are a friend's thoughts on "the semiotics of spandex": https://fortunaerota.wordpress.com/2008/10/15/biking-class-and-the-panic-of-2008/

    ReplyDelete
  25. I'm amazed at the commenters who have not encountered any policing of sartorial choices by fellow cyclists. Members of my cycling club (both men and women) will beneficently dispense advice on cycling attire to new members. If the new members continue to show up in the "wrong" clothing-- including athletic clothing that is not cycling-specific-- they need to develop a thick skin or a sense of humor to deal with the snide remarks they will receive. On the other extreme, some transportational cycling activists in town recently organized an event and initially invited cyclists to show up NOT riding "expensive-looking" bikes nor wearing "cycling kit." Ironically, this was stated to be in the interest of being "inclusive." They did change the event description after some of the more athletic-oriented cyclists contacted them. This is in the U.S. Midwest.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As a midwesterner who has cycled every day for the past nine years I've never encounter this dynamic. My commutes have varied from five to fifty miles and I've met many, many cyclist both on the road and at various stopping destinations. Our conversations have always been pleasant and supportive….we're a small tribe.

      In another live, in my twenties, I fancied myself as a racer and would join in on local club rides with the fast crowd. There I met many aggressive personalities and decided they were too intense for me and instead hung out with the triathlon population in this west coast town. Still, I was never reprimanded for choices of attire, never. Since those years I've toured and commuted and find this notion of seeking out other cyclists to critique their choices of clothing completely foreign.

      Perhaps I'm one of those with a thick skin. Maybe others have always poked fun at me and I just don't hear it or don't care.

      Delete
    2. So it appears this type of criticism is a feature of some cycling fraternities - or perhaps some members of those fraternities - small minded and pretentious - one could almost feel sorry for them, what are they doing that is so important and illuminating? Oh yes, that's right, they're riding a bike.

      Delete
    3. To be fair, as I say above safety concerns probably come to play with roadies.

      Not one myself but know some. When describing races they all stress how important it is group to react as one when in a peloton. If not, crashes inevitably follow.

      While not entirely rational it somewhat follows the desire to encourage group think extends to clothing.

      Delete
    4. Concerns about safety I understand because as an organised group, certain responsibilities will attach to any group activity. Unfortunately 'group think' can present as dogma - for me cycling is about a certain freedom but there are people who prefer the restrictions involved in activities contained within an 'organisation'.

      Delete
  26. I've even gotten in fights with road cyclists, because I, in my high heels and suit, was cycling faster than they were in their Lycra.
    I don't mind cycling in heels, and usually wear (merino)wool shirts, so I don't smell after my commute.
    I agree with morlamweb 'I'd much rather see people riding bikes than spend one moment disparaging another person's choices'. Just live and let live.

    ReplyDelete
  27. What a great post. I, too, ride in a mix of street clothes and cycling clothes, and over the years I've learned (mostly) what works for me on and off the bike. I don't encounter criticism from other cyclists per se, but I do notice that roadies seem to assume I'm going to be slow, pass me at a light or when I've slowed for children on a trail, and are then in my way. Sorry guys, but just because I'm in a dress doesn't mean I can't kick your ass.

    ReplyDelete
  28. The brilliant thing about bikes is that, like people, they come in almost every possible size, colour and style, and we love them for the versatility and accommodation they bring to our transportation needs. I have to admit to a love of lycra. No, not for me! I'm a middle aged, conservatively dressed old boot on a 3 speed Pashley. There is, however, almost nothing, NOTHING, that gladdens my soul and makes my heart sing more than to be passed on some long winding country lane by a lean, fit good looking bloke, in full lycra get up, on a road bike. Particularly if he's wearing red and white, or red, black and white. OMG, its like watching a greek marble statue of David come alive on the lanes before me, the lovely curves of that back, the smooth behind and long, muscular legs ... and just for a moment or two, I find my 3 speed Pashley picking up speed wistfully after him as he pedals away from me, drat, drat and double drat, leaving me alone on the lane again with a smile on my middle-aged face. Well, I'm only human! ...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Please don't - you will just encourage them!

      Delete
  29. I just have to say . . . OMG! Those shoes are divine!! As to wardrobe, I criticize no one. I have been caught in a well-vented road helmet at the same time as having my pant legs thrust into my socks too often :)

    ReplyDelete
  30. Very interesting things, I love to wear skirts and heel when I ride a bike on the road. Anybody likes or not .I don’t care about this. Because I feel comfortable with this and also its my freedom.

    ReplyDelete