Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

Cycling fashion and the gender divide

Posted by on September 27th, 2006 at 9:02 am

Breakfast on the Bridges - October

Last week I ran into Natalie Ramsland of Sweetpea Bicycles at a backyard party. We both bike a lot for transportation or work, and were talking about how we choose our clothes based on their bike-worthiness.

Natalie said she chooses all her jeans by testing whether or not she can fit her U-lock in the back pocket. (She’ll even run outside to her bike to check, if the salespeople will let her.) Someone standing with us pointed out that a lot of thought goes into pocket design on women’s jeans, from a stylistic perspective. Natalie laughed, and said if she cared about that, where would she put her lock?

Women’s clothing design has come a long way down the path to equality, but I’m reminded whenever I’m looking for clothes that there’s still a ways to go. When I started to rely on my bike as my primary form of transportation, my wardrobe underwent a radical change; no more trading in comfort or utility for fashion.

Women’s gear is more often than not focused on style and body image. I have no problem with lycra shorts with built in skirts, but you’re paying a lot extra for not much utility…and they have no pockets.

Women’s bike jerseys often have shrunken pocket capacity – instead of three pockets across your back, as all men’s jerseys sport, you often get just one measly little pocket in the middle of your back. These jerseys make it possible to independently carry a pump and patch kit only if you have bags attached to your bike, or have someone else carry it for you. There is no such trend in men’s jerseys.

Many Portlanders attest that you don’t have to be unfashionable to bike. But you need clothes in which you can swing your legs, protect your feet, breathe easily, avoid entanglements with spokes and drive chain, and generally feel free.

You have to carry stuff with you, and a clutch purse won’t really do. Unless you want to carry a pannier or a messenger bag around, you need pockets. And women’s clothing is hopelessly behind in this department.

Pretty Dress Ride

[Quick! Call the Fashion Police!]

Bicycling is an integral part of the history of feminism. With the popularity of bicycling came a radical increase in women’s mobility and, necessarily, the popularity of women’s trousers (here’s a good historical essay on the topic). Mobility and clothing were tied together as liberatory issues.

Bicycling is still liberating from the traditional accoutrements – and fears – of femininity. You don’t need anyone to hold your purse or wallet or keys, or drive you home. No need to walk through empty parking lots at night or wait at deserted bus stops. If you can bike in a pair of shoes, then you can probably walk comfortably in them, too. You feel healthy, strong, and self-sufficient. And hey, you don’t need to wear blush – you’ve got a healthy glow from your trip.


[Portland-style SUV]
Photo: Cleverchimp

Back to Natalie of Sweetpea: she designs and builds bikes specifically for women. Not because women’s bikes are so different than men’s, but because the whole bike industry is so saturated with men and men’s concerns that women are usually left to fend for themselves on those masculine terms.

The era of male chauvinism in bike shops is ending but far from over. It’s harder for women than men to meet the standard of acceptable attire at many jobs or social situations where bicycling is not the norm.

On a positive note, the percentage of women bicyclists is rising and there are new solutions for carrying children and groceries by bike. On the fun side, we have an abundance of costume rides (the Pretty Dress Ride comes to mind). At such events, Portland cyclists—who are still by a large majority men, compete to dress as impractically as possible while still being able to ride.

This excellent trend of cyclists in drag of all stripes points (in its fun-oriented, apolitical way) to the still-present gender divide and its limitations on mobility.

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  • SnarkyPants September 27, 2006 at 9:22 am

    Interesting post. I have always been loathe to wear women’s bike clothing. Not only are the pockets sub-par but they are often cut too short, too tight and just all-around “too”. Add to that the fact that the are often offered in an awful array of “pastels” or “fun print”.

    I recently bought a pair of SheBeest knickers that I find extremely utilitarian (look as great off the bike as on, function very well) but I still prefer my wooly Ibex knickers any day.

    More to your point – I agree, it’s thrilling to see women join the masses of cyclists. I can talk pretty good shop but still find myself intimidated in smaller bike shops. Luckily, Portland is full of lots of great owners who are going the distance to make us feel more welcome and more willing to ask questions. The best thing women can do is keep riding, keep asking, keep learning and keep kicking hardcore booty.

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  • Cecil September 27, 2006 at 9:30 am

    Great article, Elly – you might want to check out http://www.teamestrogen.com for women’s jerseys with wide/deep pocket capacity (as well as those teeny tiny triathlon jerseys with one useless teeny tiny pocket). Sheila Moon and Cannondale women’s jersey’s have excellent triple back pockets in which I can stuff lots of things, including pump, tubes, patch kit, arm/leg warmers, rain jacket, food and stuffed rabbit.

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  • Chris Cotrell September 27, 2006 at 9:42 am

    But you need clothes in which you can swing your legs, protect your feet, breathe easily, avoid entanglements with spokes and drive chain, and generally feel free.

    This is exactly why urban bikes need chainguards.

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  • gabrielamadeus September 27, 2006 at 11:01 am

    errr, speaking of drag, way off on the horizon is a “drag event” the brain child of mykle, nasty, and jordan:

    MINIBIKE DRAG RACING! (for minibikewinter 2007)

    0) it’s a straightaway, flat, short route, like a real drag race!
    1) and … you dress in drag!
    2) and … you drag a full-size bike on the ground behind you!
    3) and … you have to drag on a cigarette while you race!
    4) and … the whole thing is in the rain! what a DRAG!

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  • Dan Porter September 27, 2006 at 11:22 am

    Great article and I am not refuting anything you mention – except: I do have a men’s jersey with only one pocket. It is a sleeveless one and more tight fitting than others, so I think this is why it only has one pocket.

    I have another sleeveless one with 2 pockets that I like much more. Actually my single pocket jersey has been relegated to either coldweather ‘undershirt’ jersey, or for indoor fitness cycling (ie spinning -the horror)

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  • dayaram September 27, 2006 at 11:35 am

    Historical trends – I remember my grandmother, who died in 1960 when I was 15m She told me once that a woman on the street called her a “hussy” because she was wearing ‘bloomers’ so she could ride a bicycle. This must have been around 1900. (she was born in 1880)

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  • dayaram September 27, 2006 at 11:35 am

    sorry I was 15 years old

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  • Kristen September 27, 2006 at 11:44 am

    Great article!

    I noticed that my local bike shops carried a staggering array of interesting and colorful jerseys for men…. and very little of the same for women. One catalog had 5 back-to-back pages of just jerseys for men, and 2 pages, facing each other, for the whole line of women’s clothing they carry.

    I went to the store in question and asked how come they didn’t carry the cool Pink Floyd or Led Zep jerseys or other cool jerseys for women, and they told me to talk to their purchaser. Haven’t had time to track him down yet, but I’m going to.

    In the meantime, I get my stuff from teamestrogen.com. Funny enough, it was one of my male biking friends who pointed me that way. 🙂 I still tease him about it!

    The first jersy I bought from them is cut a little longer, a little looser, and has three big pockets across the back. And it’s not “pastel” or “frilly”, it’s a cool jersey. 🙂 So they’ll get my dollars!

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  • Randy September 27, 2006 at 12:44 pm

    Urban cyclists don’t need no stinkin’ jerseys!

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  • sh September 27, 2006 at 12:49 pm

    Ahh, it’s hard to be woman in the cycling apparel realm.

    The truth of it is, is that while manufacturers have recently discovered the depth of the W’s market (and respective pocketbook), they’re still confused on the ratio of style-to-function. The assumption is that most women will buy for style first, price next, and technical quality last. Judging from the offerings on the floor of most local bike shops, their buyers tend to agree.

    You’ll see the high-end Assos and Castelli product lines well-represented in the M’s section, and very little in the W’s. Bummer. Super-bummer.

    Colorado Cyclist recently expanded their W’s offerings at last, so perhaps things are developing…

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  • Lynne September 27, 2006 at 1:20 pm

    Maybe urban cyclists don’t NEED jerseys. But it is not a bad thing to wear them! I commute to work and I get sticky. Nice to have clean clothes to change into.

    I’ve got entirely too many women’s jerseys, most with extremely decent pockets.
    I don’t shop at the LBS for cycling clothing. teamestrogen.com is my first stop. And the clothes have got to FIT, or they don’t get bought.

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  • justa September 27, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    nic article. i’m lucky in that i just happen to favor short skirts, leggings, and fitted shirts. long skirts and pants hit the back burner a long time ago 🙂 it’s funny the little things going by bike changes about your perspective, from giving potential wardrobe additions a rundown, to gauging exactly how many hills stand between your favorite bar and your new apartment. cheers!

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  • Cate September 27, 2006 at 1:36 pm

    I agree with Cecil – teamestrogen.com is a great source. Terry Bicycles also has a good selection: http://www.terrybicycles.com/

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  • Ayala September 27, 2006 at 2:07 pm

    You think it’s bad to be a female cyclist trying to find good cycling wear? Try being a *plus-size* female cyclist trying to find good cycling wear. I do my shopping at Team Estrogen and Terry Bicycles, who have a pretty decent selection, but they only have so much. Plus-size women’s raingear? Almost non-existent. Yes, I may be fat, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy riding my bike to commute or for recreation any less than a lean mean stringbean cyclist, and that doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve a good selection of gear to choose from.

    [/rant mode off]

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  • Clinton Rider September 27, 2006 at 3:05 pm

    Ayala hit the nail squarely. I’m a size 12-14 and have a hard time finding women’s gear that fits. Too-short inseams, too short waist-crotch ratio…

    More often than not, the men’s fits me better! Besides, as SnarkyPants and Kristen pointed out, I’d rather wear the The Stones/Pink Floyd and Cartman, than pretty little flowers.

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  • Hawthrone rider September 27, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    This is a great story – I’ve heard from the city bike counts that more males than females are riding, and I’m sure clothing has a lot to with it (especially for commuters). Becoming a bicycle commuter has changed my fashion decisions – I can’t usually justify buying a skirt if it’s not wide enough to throw my leg over by bike or buying shoes that I can’t ride in. I have a few things that I think of as my “bus riding” clothes for the days I don’t bike to to work. I don’t like hauling extra clothes with me, yet I work in an office job where I have to dress nice. It takes a little extra planning, and usually lots of layers, too!

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  • Donna September 27, 2006 at 10:20 pm

    About the high cost of those commuter skorts: The most valuable utility about them is how many women on bikes with skirts on are treated better by motorists. I’ve seen this many times and experienced it personally, though I can’t quite figure out why.

    I can’t put a monetary value on that.

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  • Cowboy_X September 28, 2006 at 2:02 pm

    Where would she carry her lock? how about with the convenient lock mount that comes with the lock…?

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  • Dabby September 28, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    Convenent lock mount that allows the lock to pop out and into your wheel, cranks, etc?
    What kind of cowboy are you?
    Where do you carry your lasso, when you are off the horse?
    Does Kryptonite make a Lasso frame mount?

    By the way, Natalie made her bike, I doubt she is going to strap a ungainly lock mount to her pretty paint job.

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  • Bikeybunnygirl September 28, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    Since I’m not really a fan of “cycling gear”, I try to focus on finding civilian clothes that are well-suited to riding my bike as well as being breathable, stretchable, etc. I’m happy that pegged pants are in fashion again — FINALLY — after so many years of flared legs being the rule. Not to mention the long-awaited farewell to “low-rise” pants. Between shirts being cut too short and pants being cut too low … hello, buttcrack! The visual is bad enough … the breeze is worse!

    In terms of city commuting, do we REALLY need padded shorts (or the skirted version) for daily riding? I commute 20 miles round-trip each day, and I don’t see any need for that. But skorts in general ROCK … I’ve been stocking up the last couple of years since they seem pretty ubiquitous in fashion right now. I also find this time of year is great for rocking lightweight skirts or dresses with tights. Even after riding in the rain, lightweight tights and fabric seems to dry within minutes … I hate wearing rain gear if I’m headed downtown to see a show on a Friday night (take off wet rain gear, store wet rain gear in bag. After the show, pull out wet rain gear and put it back on …erm. No thanks!). I’d rather be soggy for a few minutes, and if I dress smart, I’ll be dry before I know it.

    Maybe there should be a forum for exchanging cycling fashion tips.

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  • Cecil September 28, 2006 at 5:05 pm

    I have two skorts in my line-up, both from Shebeest. They make me look lie a cross between Billie Jean King and the winter version of Jan Ullrich, but they definitely get noticed by drivers. I’m just not sure I want the kind of notice they get 🙂

    But seriously, when I talk about jerseys and shorts, etc, I am talking about what I would wear for 30+ mile ride – not my daily commute. For that I wear old stretch pants and a t-shirt, and carry all my crap in a messenger bag. . . .but for over thirty miles I need me a wee bit of padding, some quad support and big back pockets.

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  • The Pant Spec. at Sweetpea Bicycles September 29, 2006 at 2:13 pm

    […] Fall fashion is on everyone’s mind these days. Everyone from The New Yorker to Bust has had their “fashion issue,” and it’s high time I unleashed mine. My issue is pants. […]

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  • Miriam September 30, 2006 at 7:48 pm

    What I’ve discovered this spring and summer are the knee length shorts for my commute. They allow for great range of motion and I only buy the ones with belt loops and pockets. That way I dont show off crack (so wrong in so many ways) and pockets to put the essentials in (though truthfully I carry my bag most of the time).

    My favorite part of teamestrogen.com is the fact that they have a picture of the pad in the description. This is sooooo helpful.

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  • Cate October 1, 2006 at 1:03 am

    It’s so great to see people plugging teamestrogen.com. Big thank you to Susan Otcenas and everyone else out in Hillsboro. I just wish there were a store where we could try stuff on… Susan, please oh please will you open a store?

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  • megan May 20, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    I had JUST finished writing about this in my blog when I googled \”biking fashion\” to see if any other women were also kind of annoyed. I\’m your average urban road bike rider. No jerseys but it\’s my primary form of transportation. My commute is super short so it doesn\’t bother me to carry a bag to work. But when I go out– that\’s when it gets annoying. It\’s too freaking hot to wear long-enough tshirts (to cover the crack AND the cleavage) and real shoes. Furthermore, I\’m tired of looking like a dude. Sometimes I miss dresses and sandals. So far the only solution I see is switching to my other (clunkier, slower, oh well) bike sometimes.

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