Cathy Hastie is BikePortland’s lifestyle columnist.
“These were people who, with the easy addition of a pant-leg strap and the loosening of the tie, transitioned from high-powered client meetings to high-speed escapades down the Eastbank Esplanade in seconds flat.”
What is working at our daily jobs if not an opportunity for us to look fabulous? Yes, there is that question of earning a living and feeling fulfilled, but aside from all that, it gives us the chance to adorn our bodies in clothing that makes us feel powerful, important, or at least interesting. If it weren’t for our daily occupations, how many of us would forget to change out of the appalling but comfortable sweatpants and shapeless college-era tees we prefer to sport around the house?
Yes, work is an excuse to look sharp. But looking good each day while riding a bicycle to work is a separate challenge, one that I recently discovered is more often than not forsaken by my fellow bike commuters. One crisp, sunny September afternoon, I left work early and biked to the east side of the Hawthorne Bridge to conduct a fashion study of Portland cycling. I parked my faithful two-wheeled friend alongside the bike path and wedged my Dansko platform clogs into the V of the metal fencing, hoisting myself up onto the broad, flat steel rail above. I swung my purple tights-clad thigh over the top. After a few brief moments of awkwardness – I’m sure no one was paying attention — I managed to turn around, arrange my silk, black-polka-dot skirt around my knees and cross my legs in modest reporter fashion. My view as I balanced on the fence rail encompassed the entire south bikeway looking west — the perfect data collection point for my research.
It was 4:45 pm. I would be able to evaluate and tally the biking wardrobe of every east-bound commuter coming at me from this strategic perch.
I pulled my pen and notepad out from my handmade studded pleather backpack, and tucked an escaping wisp of hair back under the cute, flower-print Nutcase helmet I still wore. It matched my pink Anthropologie blouse and added just the right aura of local hip chic to the otherwise client-appropriate outfit I had picked for work that morning.
Hardly a minute passed before I was called into action by a small pack of riders approaching from the SW 2nd Avenue bridge ramp. My plan was to take a one-hour sample of bikers, counting and classifying their attire as they made their daily commute home after work. The timeframe, from 4:45 to 5:45, would capture slackers who sneak out of work early (like me) and give folks a chance to change after work if that is their thing. The first small group of riders consisted mainly of men in jeans and T-shirts. One rider wore logo-emblazoned tour gear a la Lance Armstrong. There were two women in black elastane biking pants.
For the next hour, bikers came at me in spurts or in long continuous lines of twos and threes jockeying for the pole position going up the slight incline to SE Hawthorne Blvd. At times, my tally marks couldn’t keep up with them all. The sheer volume of bike riders was impressive. After the first half hour, I had put pen to paper 187 times. I ride with this enormous pack every day — I line up behind them in the green box at the MLK traffic light, I feel their wind as they zip past me on the uphill at SE Clinton Street. But witnessing them now, each following one after the other like a rolling ant parade, drove home how robust this bike-centered life is here in Portland.
I have to admit I was a little surprised at what they wore.
The first 15 minutes brought almost all young people — in jeans. I personally never wear jeans to work. I rarely even wear them at home, preferring slouch-wear, pajamas or a pretty sundress. It dawned on me that this must be the student contingent. The servers from Starbucks and Pizzicato had punched out. The last class of the day at PSU had finished up. These were the pre-professionals, and jeans serve as everyday wear that is just as appropriate and convenient on the seat of a bike as in the seat of a classroom chair. Jeans dominated my non-scientific study — 35 riders wore them — until 5:00 pm, and by the end of the hour, I had counted 183 jeans-wearers; 119 men and 64 women. Obviously, the ‘Portland casual’ look played heavily outside of the classroom too, accounting for 23% of the bikers that hour.
The second noticeable wave of fashion was the shorts and T-shirts set. Mostly men, these riders swarmed a little later, between 5:10 and 5:30. I imagined office workers changing out of their slacks and dress shirts in office bathroom stalls. They donned leftover weekend clothes — whatever had been tossed on the bedroom floor Sunday night: multi-pocketed cargo shorts, barbeque-stained T-shirts, an occasional button up madras shirt — and were now sweating in them. In this same category, I lumped those who wore athletic attire of any sort. Women more often than men wore windproof, ripstop biking pants, stretch pants or full-length athletic tights. My favorite rider in this category wore super short blue running shorts, but kept his shirt and tie from the office. (Apparently, he only sweats from the waist down.) This sexy combination caused me to stare, and he waved at me, smiling big. I watched his royal blue tie flap in the wind and his nicely muscled thighs pump the pedals. The distraction made me miss the next five riders.
As should be expected, athletic gear and shorts dominated the hour with 46% of riders, 260 men and 115 women choosing them as the appropriate attire for a tranquil September afternoon ride home.
Interspersed among these groups was the occasional pro-biker wannabe. These riders looked serious; perhaps they live in Gresham, from the built-for-distance, multi-colored spandex shorts they wore. Their matching singlets, emblazoned with sponsor names and banana pockets, frequently camouflaged middle-aged paunches. These riders almost all carried panniers on their bikes instead of backpacks. Like I said — serious! 57 men and 15 women considered their ride grueling enough to wear only the finest in bike gear. As a fashion category, this group had a poor showing at only 9%. A mere 72 riders emulated the style of the pros. Could the de-throning of the allegedly drug-addled Tour legend, Armstrong, have something to do with these paltry numbers?
My favorite category was the well-dressed biker. These were people who, with the easy addition of a pant-leg strap and the loosening of the tie, transitioned from high-powered client meetings to high-speed escapades down the Eastbank Esplanade in seconds flat. Men wore dress shirts and ties; women wore slacks and flats. There were 86 men who did nothing more than roll up a pants leg and swing it over their bike to get on the road. Surprisingly, this is the only category where women out-performed men. 91 females of all shapes and sizes did away with the fuss and bother of packing a change of clothes for their commute. They wore what could be considered office clothing, including simple skirts, boots, slacks, penny-loafers, sandals and blouses. My favorite business-attire rider, not unlike my favorite blue-shorts-and-tie man, demonstrated the value of mixing genres. She wore a tight little black skirt and an elegant blouse, but underneath she had sensibly chosen hot pink lycra shorts that flashed with every turn of the crankshaft. In my one hour sample, I observed 146 people (22%) who found it unnecessary to change their clothes before their commute. Like me, they probably ride a little slower than the rest so as not to muss their dry-clean-only items.
During this study, I saw a man covered in bags full of plastic bags, a women in her hospital scrubs, a grown man riding a scooter in shirtsleeves and tie, a giant tricycle carrying mom, dad and child, two shirtless men, and a smattering of children riding behind their parents on variations of bicycles built for two. I learned that men ride more than women, at a rate of almost 2 to 1. I viewed a wide variety of work and fitness attire and inferred that those who changed into different clothing for their commute, about 54%, think of it as an athletic activity, while the remaining 46% don’t necessarily. Overall, I counted 807 thin, fat, tall, short, brown, white, hairy, bald, young and old people as they powered themselves efficiently and cleanly across our famously bike-friendly bridge. That averages 13 people per minute. Most of them wore shorts — and a smile.
I hopped down from my observation deck and stowed my research tools back in my cute little backpack. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed with the results. I was looking for fashion statements, riders who thumbed their noses at the concept that cycling and looking great are like oil and water. I was hoping to see patent-leather pumps and floral-print peasant skirts; pink ruffles with matching thigh-highs, Brooks Brothers jackets, suspenders and spiffy Dolce and Gabbana silk ties. Apparently, Portlanders are a little too practical — or they sweat more than I do.
So, with a sigh, I mounted my two-wheeler and merged with the still-heavy traffic streaming out of downtown, taking my familiar place amongst my pack. With my black polka-dots, my bright, flouncy, lace-trimmed blouse and my purple tights, I headed for home in the slow lane, a single point of eye-catching fabulousness in the thick of the crowd.
Want to see more bike fashion from Portland and beyond? Check out our People on Bikes column.