Women’s Clothing for Biking that Doesn’t Look Like It’s for Biking: What to Wear, What to Wear

I have nothing to wear. 

As in, there are very few choices if you’re a woman looking for professional clothing that’s made for cycling (no ill-placed seams in the crotch, no fabric that irritates, no flappy wide-legged trousers or long full skirts that get caught in the chain) and that looks good when you walk into a meeting in which all the men wear ties and jackets and you’re the only person taking off a helmet and gloves.

Once upon a time I used to drive to work and hang clothes there. I now bike almost year-round so I really don't want to drive (and was never very happy with having to decide a day or two in advance what I’d feel like wearing on a given day).

In my next phase I tried riding in bike clothes, rolling everything and packing it into panniers, changing when I arrive, and changing again to ride home. I still do some of this when it’s really cold; I just keep my base layer on under my office clothes because I like to be toasty warm.

Mostly, though, I’ve changed my shopping habits to get to where I am now: If I can't bike in it, I don't buy it. I do a lot more moving and contorting in dressing rooms than I used to so I’m sure I can throw a leg over my bike and take off.

But what I really want—what I’ve started dreaming about—is good-looking clothing that no one will guess is made specifically for cycling. Only I will know about the extra comfort elements and careful tailoring. Fashion-forward options with secret gussets will get us beyond the Spandex Dork image from which cycling suffers and will help encourage more women to bike, I’m just sure of it.

Bike Shop Girl just blogged about this same dilemma. I found out because I asked her via Twitter, after a semi-fruitless Google search, if she knew of anyplace to get good-looking pants. (My search, in case you’re curious: women’s tailored clothing for urban biking—terms I arrived at after realizing that “professional” and “cycling” in the same search would yield nothing but Spandex).

The one nice-looking pair of cycling-specific women’s pants for office wear I’ve found, made by Outlier in New York City, costs $180. Gulp.

Call me cheap (I prefer “thrifty” in homage to my Depression-era parents), but I’ve never paid that much for a single item of clothing. No matter how good they look, how can I justify the investment—wear them every day? Back up to where I said I’m a woman and this is a fashion dilemma. Same pair of pants every day ain’t gonna happen.

Plus I’d have to buy online. How will I know whether I look good in these pants? And did I mention they cost $180?

The only other item of women’s clothing they offer is a merino wool tank top. Nice, but hey guys, we’re women, OK? How about a wider selection for us?

Oh, wait, I forgot. This is cycling—one of the few clothing product lines in which men will have more colors and options than women. (Also, hello again, Outlier? If you’re going to offer three color choices you have to Show. The. Actual. Colors.)

My Google search led me to this article on Treehugger that lists only 5 items, mostly for men, apparently written before Outlier added the women’s pants. Pickings pretty slim again. Swrve makes knickers for women, but no trousers. (They make men’s pants, of course.)

And seriously, knickers? It’s nice to keep your knees warm when the temperature drops but I don’t want to look like a misplaced golfer once I’m in the office in my plus-fours.

BikePortland had an article in the search results and I got all excited. It’s Portland, right? Should be plenty of stylish options there, right?

They link to the Sheila Moon site (“infuses cycling apparel with a twist of fashion”), which offers knickers in several fabrics. There’s that golfer thing again and it doesn’t change my mind just because they say knickerbockers are big with the velocouture crowd, whoever they are. I can also get stretchy yoga pants. Not so good with the suit/tie-couture crowd.

The BikePortland piece also points to Ibex, which has a slightly more promising line—at least there are the “global wool pants” that look more like trousers. Icebreaker has some pants that might work too.

But c’mon, who’s designing these sites? No back view of the pants! What is the one thing I want to know about every pair of pants I own? That’s right—do they make my butt look big?

I do like the way that mousing over the product at Ibex shows me a close-up and lets me scan—I just want to be able to rotate to the back side and do the same thing.

The product photography on these sites mostly fails. Particularly with dark fabrics, it’s almost impossible to see crisp detail. If I can’t zoom—as I can’t on the Icebreaker site—I can’t tell much about the item. You’re already asking me to trust you and ship off my money when I can’t even try the thing on. Is it too much to ask that I be able to really see pockets, zippers and stitching?

The real test almost every product I’ve found fails is the “does it look like workout clothing?” test. Visible logos, visible seams, sizing that runs S/M/L instead of true women’s clothing sizes, descriptions that include “comfortable for yoga”—these aren’t going to pass for boardroom wear.

For now I’m making do with regular clothes. My ride to work is 2.5 miles, mostly downhill. During the day I may do another 3-5 miles to various meetings. The ride home is uphill but I’m heading home so I don’t have to sprint. I’ll cover some of my clothing management tactics in a future post.

What are your clever accommodations if you’re a bike rider who needs to look polished at work?

A few related posts:



11 comments :

  1. Columbia makes some nice pants that are a bit stretchy, which makes for easy bike riding, and also look professional (wearing them right now in fact). And they're not a million dollars, and they're a bit water resistant. http://www.columbia.com/Makaha-Valley%E2%84%A2-Classic-Capri/AL8573,default,pd.html

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  2. Thanks! I'm checking out the Columbia site now and seeing a few more choices.
    Nau makes some nice stuff too (although in the same general price range as Outlier Tailored). I'm compiling a shopping list I'll include in an upcoming post.

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  3. Barb, I've got the same problem, only my commute is longer and uphill both ways for part of the time! Consequently, I'm not nearly as faithful at it as you! Sadly, I don't think it's realistic to expect to fix the problem with clothing alone. I think the real issue is the kind of bikes that we ride. If you look at the bikes professional people are riding in places like Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Tokyo, they are very different from our road and mountain bike styles. They are upright, they usually have coaster brakes and internal gearing, and step-through frames for both men and women. Most importantly, they have fully covered chainguards and full fenders. They are not super fast bikes, but they make it very easy to get on and off, and keep the clothing (whatever you wear) as clean as possible. I have looked at bikes for the last three years, in search of something I would consider a real commuter. There are very few available in this country that come close to what is available in Europe and Japan. And, what is relatively inexpensive and very common there, is ridiculously expensive here. I wish American bike brands like Trek and Specialized would start building and selling true commuters here, not just a comfort bike with a light on it! --Wilma

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  4. It's hard as a slob dude to find "normal" clothes that work well for cycling, I can't image trying to look nice too.

    But I share your quest not to look like a "serious cyclist."

    I think it's probably easier in the cooler months, since you can use the wools -- Liza likes Value Village wool pants and Ibex shirts.

    Wilma: one thing many of the cities you cite don't have are hills -- or substantial hills at least. Lugging a typical Amsterdam-type commuter up 400 feet of Spokane's south hill is not pleasant.

    Check out Specialized Globe Live -- it's a smart commuter in the right direction of what you are seeking. Missing the chain guard unfortunately, but it hits your other requirments (integrated rack and fenders, internal gear hub, nice step-through design). I've got no personal interest/connection with the bike/company/etc, I just think it's about the only commuter made by a big bike co that is trending in the right direction.

    Or you can roll your own.

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  5. Barb - I hear you! I get so excited when I read that a new line is coming out for cyclists, only to inevitably be so disappointed when it consists of those silly little hats that look good on skinny guys with small heads, and a jersey. Blargh. Where is the Banana Republic of Bespoke? I ask you. And receive no reply. Thrifting has become my best friend, but I'm lucky that I am an old-fashioned size six. My best option last winter was a leather wrap around skirt (sounds weird, but can look semi-professional, with leggings and warm tights galore. It's still a big dilemma.

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  6. Hey, Barb:

    I just also remembered that when I was in Amsterdam in April, Ria Hilshorst rode her bike around with our group with a clothespin clipping her pants' legs to keep them from flapping too wildly. I thought it was an elegant solution.

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  7. April,

    I'm with you--thrift stores and layers can be pretty cute. As I relax my personal style I get more options (but I still won't wear yoga pants every day).

    My version of the clothespin is either a binder clip or rubber bands, although I just found out with one pair of pants that if I wear the rubber band too long I end up with big crinkles around the ankle. Binder clip or clothespin probably works better on fabrics that crease easily.

    And here I thought women in Europe would have more style options!

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  8. I'm happy with the wrinkle free slacks I picked up at Nordstrom a couple of years ago. They are so comfortable! And they have a tiny bit od stretch too. But they do have wide legs, so I have to bind them down at the ankles.

    I also love my saddle when I ride in jeans. It has a hole in it, so that really huge seam isn't a problem. But... most people don't get to wear jeans to work like I do...

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  10. Women's workout wear market has been growing at such a rapid pace. I've been looking for workout clothes for women since a long time.

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