I love fashion and shopping, but mostly just eye-fucking beautiful apparel on the Gram. When it comes to hunting down fashionable bike apparel, I find the intersection of bike and fashion to be a nice constraint: otherwise I would be sompting down the block in a pair of Jimmy Choo stilettos, a Carolina Herrera evening gown, and no money in my bank account.
While my love affair with fashion is long-lasting, I feel that my love is unrequited because the fashion industry does not serve my demographic: a human that sweats and moves through the world. There’s High Fashion that feeds my bloated ego when I arrive at a formal event looking hella fierce. There’s Ready to Wear that is supposed to serve my day to day activities such as work, groceries, and driving, but is usually constricting, uncomfortable, and has unuseable pockets for women. Then there’s Athletic Apparel designed for gyms, triathlons, and Serena Williams, but mostly used for walking your dog through the farmer’s market or sipping mimosas at brunch.
For this post I have no gripes with High Fashion or Athletic Apparel, I’ll save those gripes for another day. For now, I want to pick on Ready to Wear because while the clothes are ready to wear they are not ready for life. I remember life before cycling when I wore creased slacks, white button-down shirts, and corporate-ladder-climbing pumps. I carried the aura of success, but between the cobbler, dry cleaners, and stain remover required to get the pit stains out of those expensive shirts, I found that I served my apparel more than my apparel served me.
Putting aside Stacy London’s piercing words that teared down insecure humans for their lack of fashion sense on What Not to Wear; for this post, I will share my tips and tricks on how to look fashionable and feel comfortable while you ride…and in life.
I don’t like Lycra for the bike; it’s ugly. I don’t have a peloton posse to cut through the streets at 20mp and don’t want to shower at work so the traditional lycra suit will not do for my daily commute. In procuring bike-friendly apparel, I scour local boutiques and websites for apparel that’s fun, fashionable, and functional. I’ve already shared some of my bike-friendly fashion tips on Seattle Bike Blog, but I will go a bit more in-depth here. I look for clothing that is breathable, flexible, and inexpensive.
Moderating heat while riding can be challenging so having breathable apparel is a necessity. While I don’t have a cure for sweat, wearing materials that breathe can at least mitigate it. Body heat creates sweat and when the air hits the body it lowers the body temperature. If your apparel does not allow air to touch your skin then your body will continue to sweat without cooling off. If your clothes do not breathe, then your ride will be hot and sweaty and you will arrive at your destination a sweaty hot mess.
To attain breathability, the fabric matters and the number one rule is absolutely no polyester (or the like). Polyester is the worst, it doesn’t breathe and holds odor even after you wash it! It’s weird because polyester is the cornerstone of the American apparel industry, especially athletic apparel. Have you ever noticed that the ass sweat funk in those yoga pants won't seem to go away? Some apparel companies that specialize in active office workwear have an inventory mostly made of polyester. Although polyester’s is inexpensive and wrinkle resistant features make it a good candidate for your ride, its lack of breathability is a deal-breaker.
Now that the stinky polyester is out of the way let’s focus on breathable fabrics such as cotton, wool, rayon, and linen.
- Wool: if you don’t ride, this may seem strange because we usually associate wool with warmth, but wool is actually a cyclist best friend. It not only keeps you warm but also breathes and continues to keep you warm when wet. Bike riding is cooler on the hands and feet than walking or running so wool socks and gloves are key. I don’t wear wool in the summer, but for those cool spring and fall days, I still wear my gloves. Wool sweaters are also a great staple for the winter ride. Another bonus is that wool is a sustainable resource that is easy on the Earth.
- Cotton: breathable, inexpensive, and readily available. Cotton is great for the summer, but it retains moisture. If you get wet, you will get cold once you cool down at stop lights and crosswalks. Also, cotton farming does not have a stellar reputation.
- Cupro: a trademarked processed sateen from Italy made from the cotton plant. It’s magical. While uncommon in the states, I do have a couple of Dusen Dusen rompers made from it, and I love them, both on and off the bike. The fabric is breathable, quick drying (unlike traditional cotton), and is a great alternative for jacket lining. Cupro is a bit pricier than common polyester (horrible) or rayon (see below) linings. Yet it will not make a significant difference in price, sif you are splurging for a tailored suit. You might as well go for it. Other than availability, the only downside is the possible environment cost due to cotton farming (see above) and the processing it takes to produce.
- Rayon: breathable, sustainable, and available, rayon is a great option for your ride. The only con is that rayon degrades with sweat, but that takes a while. I have a few rayon shirts and dresses and they’ve held up just fine so far.
- Tencel: another trademarked processed material (from Australia), but more Earth friendly. Made from wood, it’s soft to the touch, moisture-wicking, and breathable. However, like Cupro, it’s not widely available in the states. I just made a little red bike dress (#shamelessplug) from a few yards I scored at Mood Fabrics.
- Linen: light, breathable, and made from flax (so you know it’s good for you). I actually don’t have any linen pieces, yet, but it’ on my summer shopping list.
After taking on my bike apparel obsession, I quickly realized that most Ready to Wear clothes are only good for standing up straight, sitting uncomfortably, and that feeling of relief when you get to take them off at the end of the day. For most other activities such as running after buses, lugging around children, and sweating bullets in business meetings, Ready to Wear is actively working against you. So for riding a bike, it's imperative that your apparel moves with you.
When you are shopping for apparel at your favorite woman and/or minority-owned shop, look for items that have a little stretch (i.e., about 3% Spandex or the like) or gives you room to move. Once you have narrowed down your options, try on each piece and put them to the test for full range of motion: do a quick vinyasa, lunge, or handstand. Always try them on before your ride; you don’t want any fashion emergencies when you’re navigating traffic.
This doesn’t mean cheap. I fall squarely in my middle class blue bubble, but I am cognizant that inexpensive is relative. I’ve definitely mined some gems from the floor of my local Ross store, but it takes time. So depending on what you have more of, time or money, shop accordingly. If it feels out of your price range, then don’t buy it for your bike ride because...you will fall.
I know, non- or newbie riders hate to hear about falling because any time they hear of a bike incident, it’s tragic. The truth is that every avid cyclist has fallen at least once in their life and most of the time it’s not tragic and usually does not involve a motor vehicle. It’s just a fall. If you are considering bike riding, there is a 100% chance that you will fall at least once. But it’s not that serious, just turn off the TV local news, wear a helmet, tuck in your arms, and keep it movin’.
I don’t say this to scare you, I’m belaboring the point because if you buy expensive apparel/gear, then you will be angry (or broke) when you fall and ruin it.
Layers layers layers
After you feel confident with your first ride outfit, don’t forget to layer. Layers are essential because when it’s just you and your bike you are subject to the elements and you can’t be saved by a Lyft or your well-meaning friends with an SUV (I am not stuffing my precious Green Machine II into some randos RAV4). Whether you are heating up from a kickass ride, chilled down by a brisk breeze, or entering buildings that are usually the opposite temperature from the outside (isn’t it strange that buildings are saunas in the winter and refrigerators in the summer?) the ability to strip down or bundle up as needed is the key to bike comfort. Even on the hottest summer days, I pack a light hoodie because grocery stores are fucking freezing.
Runways are everywhere
I saw this in Vogue magazine back in the day. There was a picture of a supermodel in a couture gown shopping for ice cream in the freezer isle of the grocery store and in bold letters it said RUNWAYS ARE EVERYWHERE. So I submit to you, why not bring the runway to the bike? Or better yet, bring the bike to the runway. Picture it, humans of all shapes and sizes flossing sweet rides up and down the runway in some sick-ass threads promoting an active lifestyle, body positivity, and the vibrancy of life.
What is your favorite bike fit?