Hysteria and the Cyclist's Wardrobe
For a brief period in the early 1990s my family lived in New York City. As a pre-teen who had been 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 siècle 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...