Where are all the good bike clothes for women?

Alex Baca Features, Issue 1 0 Comments

My cheekiest professional accomplishment was writing an alt-weekly cover story just before I turned 22. As I did every day, I biked to work the morning it went to print. At a red light, I pulled up next to my newspaper’s street box and grinned, seeing my name on the front page. The light changed, I started pedaling, and… I could feel the uncomfortable rub of my seat on the skin of my inner thigh. My pants had ripped. (It was a goofy coincidence, given that my story was about bikes.)

I’ve had a lot of pants blow out in the crotch since then. I’ve also sweat- and grease-stained countless shirts beyond repair. I generally don’t wear dresses and only buy one brand of jeans. It’s a little inconvenient, though not especially dangerous. But I do want my bikes clothes to perform in ways that wouldn’t necessarily matter if I were walking, taking the bus, or driving.

I want pockets deep enough to fit my wallet, my cell phone and maybe the clip of a rear light. I want a place to hook my keys. I want shirts long enough to cover my lower back, and jackets that accommodate the position of my shoulders when I lean on the handlebars. I want pants that won’t rip or pull apart after a few months, particularly in the crotch, and I want them to be flexible enough through the waist and hips that I don’t feel the material cutting into my midsection. Of course, I want to look attractive and be comfortable. I want the clothes I wear on my bike to be something I don’t think about, because I don’t feel them. And I want to arrive at my destination looking like a human being.

In all the seas of wearable options in this genre — for the fashion-conscious, probably urban, mostly utilitarian cyclist — there are a scant few choices bobbing along for women.

Behind the Curve

Clothing engineered for specific outdoor pursuits — think skiing, hiking and running — has steadily crept into weekend wear, and happy-hour wear, and casual-Friday wear. Even cycling-for-sport gear has less aggressive offerings that don’t scream, “I stole your QOM on Strava this morning, sucker.” This is especially true for women’s clothing, because ladies are the biggest retail spenders and the most receptive to marketing endeavors.

We’re now firmly in an era where I can wear leggings to work with an appropriately styled top and look professional for my field (which is, admittedly, more flexible than most). My preferred outfits are inching further and further toward, say, Outdoor Voices than J. Crew Factory, and a five-minute look around Elixr Coffee in Center City — or Green Line Cafe in West Philly, or the new La Colombe in Fishtown — indicates that I’m not alone.

Urban commuter cyclists are a burgeoning population that squares nicely with the acceptability and popularity of activewear. So it’s not completely out of whack to expect that major retailers might offer a morsel or two geared toward this demographic. In fact, Levi’s did as much a few years back with its commuter line, and Chrome Industries’ highly functional pieces, with the prices to match, are staples.

There are a scant few choices bobbing along for the woman who bikes for transportation.

But even those slim concessions ignore the fact that women ride bikes for transportation, too. Women account for 24 percent of all bike trips nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2009 National Household Travel Survey. That’s less than one-third of the rate for men, but it’s not insubstantial. American Community Survey data via the League of American Bicyclists identifies 30 percent of Pennsylvania women as cyclists. (Granted, this includes any woman who said that she has biked to work once.) In Philadelphia, 33 percent of cyclists are women, way higher than the national average of 24 percent. Advocacy organizations, such as Women Bike PHL and Sturdy Girl Cycling, specifically design programming around women who bike.

Yet the Levi’s line was only for men. Meanwhile, Chrome’s offerings for women have all but vanished. Retailers and independent makers alike barely, if at all, register the existence and spending power of transportation cyclists, even as their ranks increasingly include women.

A Common Complaint

It’s cheaper to find clothing that suits your bike than to buy a bike that suits your clothing. Even Outlier’s pricey 60/30 class-cut blazer, at $430, costs less than the best entry-level commuter bike, the Jamis Coda (bought new for $550). It’s more realistic to hunt down pants with pockets that can hold my cell phone — not an easy task for women, even when off a bike — than to cram more bikes into the one-bedroom I share with my boyfriend, also a cyclist.

To confirm whether the rare prevalence of what I’ve come to call “women’s-specific technical commuter clothing” is an actual issue, I posed the question to two online discussion groups: Wheelwomen Switchboard and the Washington Area Bicyclist Associations’ Women & Bicycles Facebook group, both of which are women’s-only closed groups. (Disclosure: I previously worked for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.)

“Regular jeans are so uncomfortable to ride in with seams in bad places and getting destroyed from my pedaling movement,” one woman replied. Another wrote, “Every time I buy something for my professional wardrobe, I have to make sure it works on a bike.”

Numerous commenters stated a preference for dark colors to reduce the appearance of sweat. Responses also seemed to indicate that pink-it-and-shrink-it is alive and well: “I often see really nice shirts,” one woman wrote, “but they’re in pink or yellow or light blue. Or they have flowers on them, or a bicycle. While I love shirts with bikes on them, sometimes I just want it to be a little more plain.”

Most women, evidently, do what I do: buy clothing that is at least passable for biking, and avoid the stuff (stiff jeans, maxi dresses) that doesn’t work. Yet I still find the lack of women’s-specific technical commuter clothing egregious, despite having a wardrobe full of options that work fine for a normal day of cycling. Why am I so bothered?

The Pants as a Symbol

I am aware of the inherent privilege in complaining about this. After all, there are more important issues to cycling than what to wear. Dedicated, protected bikeways, and not four-way-stretching double-weave twill pants, are the kinds of things proven to get more people, especially women, riding.

And, anyway, clothing for women who bike does exist! There’s Iva Jean. There’s Outlier. There’s Betabrand’s Bike to Work pants. There’s Riyoko. There’s Iladora. If the prices of small-scale designers are too much, some regular clothes do turn out great for cycling. I’ve found Urban Outfitters’ BDG jeans ($58) to be stretchy enough to accommodate bending and twisting, to last a good eight months before blowing out in the crotch, and to have the deep pockets that make riding without a bag possible.

“Every time I buy something for my professional wardrobe, I have to make sure it works on a bike.”

But literally anything to make cycling for transportation just a little bit easier, a little less considered, a little less like a Portlandia sketch, means that someone will free up their space on the bus and ride those few miles to work instead. Perhaps more critically, pricey products manufactured at a mass scale and marketed to utilitarian cyclists are a harbinger of normalization.

We’re not there with cycling. If one can wrap their brain around the idea that someone chooses to bike for transportation and not just for recreation, then it’s generally assumed that such an individual is young, in shape, quite possibly white, relatively new to their chosen city, college-educated,and can afford to live within biking distance of their office.

That’s why women and minorities are bandied about in policy-talk as indicator species of cycling’s larger cultural acceptance. If biking for transportation ever becomes as normal as I’d like, then fashion’s consideration of its demands will be the most significant indicator of all.

Illustration by Tim Pacific

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