The way we choose to dress is not a fringe or frivolous issue. Women’s bodies are policed, especially in professional environments, so being able to bike is often dependent on being able to look put together. One of the most frequent questions I’ve gotten from other women, especially women who don’t bike, is how I end up looking clean and well dressed as I arrive at work. I’ve heard questions targeted at fellow biking babes expressing amazement that they bike in heels, wear make-up while biking, or don’t carry a change of clothes. This amazement comes from a place of misunderstanding what a biking life can be like. You do not have to have a special spandex wardrobe. You do not have to bike so fast that you get really sweaty. You do not have to carry a change of clothes if the clothes you have fit your lifestyle.
There’s no definitive answer to why women are less likely to bike than men, making up only a quarter of the bike commuting population. Over at FiveThirtyEight, Mona Chalabi writes about how both fears of traffic and crime, coupled with additional care taking duties and lack of wealth, combine to make it difficult to suss out women’s one ultimate barrier. One study found that women’s barriers to cycling are mainly the same as men’s: distracted driving, hostile road conditions, and insufficient bike facilities. In that same study, about one third of respondents said they “have to wear nice clothes and look well-groomed at [their] destinations.” That doesn’t mean that fashion prevents women from biking, but it does indicate that it is a consideration for many women-identified bikers.
We live in a world that tells women they cannot be seen sweating, they cannot show a glimpse of thigh while biking, they cannot deviate from the employee dress code, and they must look feminine and professional. And then, even if they do all these things, they still aren’t respected or paid as much as men. These expectations create barriers to riding a bike, especially riding a bike to work and integrating it into the fabric of your life. Even if you do bike, drivers honk at you when you’re biking in a skirt, strange men under bridges approach you and ask if they can ‘be your man,’ your boss gives you a hard time for wearing a sleeveless top when you’re hot from arriving by bike, or your relatives criticize your helmet-flattened hair.
For me, dressing like a biker means making my own clothes. It means being able to choose the way that I express myself while ensuring I’m comfortable on a bike and in a wide variety of social settings. I don’t have to be limited to the narrow band of styles that are in stores. While I choose to make my own clothes, this is a recent endeavor that came out of frustration with the options available to me. I understand that most folks don’t have the time or inclination to do it. There are plenty of ways to find personal style, be it through clothes that are handmade, thrifted, swapped, or bought new.
Sewing means I can make dresses with traditional feminine silhouettes that fit my personal style and my particular body, but that are made from modern materials to allow for movement. I hate having two wardrobes, one for work and one for play. Dresses allow me to feel like myself in most any situation. And since I have a one-track mind, I like the consistency and simplicity that comes with having a uniform. For rides shorter than three miles, I don’t wear bike shorts, but for longer ones I do. I don’t wear a helmet. I often ride slowly. I like that my wardrobe and the bikes I ride are stylistically similar, it makes me feel like I’m firmly planted right in the middle of a Venn diagram of beauty and practicality.
In her essay, Dressing like a feminist, Morgan at Craft & Bee writes that “making your own clothing can be an act of resistance to the shortcomings of mainstream fashion.” So often, the clothes that women are told to wear are constrictive, revealing, or impractical for biking. On the other side, the clothing that’s made specifically for bikers is often primarily sporty, available in only certain sizes and colors, and, in some cases, produced by a company that objectifies women in their advertising. Developing a personal style that combines form and function allows us women-identified folks to navigate the world in whatever way we prefer.
How do you think about fashion and biking?