Fashion: that other F-word

I still have so much to learn, not just about gears and cables, but also about bike culture. I started blogging because I hadn’t seen anything on bike blogs that I identified with. At first, all I could find when I Googled “women biking” was either pro racing stories or photos of women who look like supermodels riding slow, heavy bikes in heels and such.

I have since discovered that the latter is part of a movement generally referred to as “cycle chic.” This excellent post on the Grease Rag blog brought it to my attention. Since reading it, I’ve been struggling to reconcile my strong interest in aesthetics, my issues with cycle chic (mostly summed up in this post by Bikey Face, excerpted below – love the phallic baguette!) and my feminist ideals. I’ve realized that when I say I have a bike fashion blog, most female cyclists automatically think cycle chic.

Read the whole post! It's funny because it's true. Bikey Face's other comics are equally awesome.

Cycle chic does not reflect the way I ride or dress. I see gorgeous women on the Greenway and in the bike lanes every day, and none of them look like they stepped out of cycle chic. I applaud the focus on cycling as transportation and the celebration of biking in street clothes. However, cycle chic has created yet another stereotype of cycling culture – one that few cyclists identify with.

Many of the cyclists I know reject the idea of bike fashion completely as something that wants them to conform to yet another materialistic ideal, mainly conceived by/for men. I can see why fashion seems like a four letter word in feminist circles – it represents an industry that does a lot to perpetuate negative women’s self-image. However, as an artist, I reject the idea that aesthetics are frivolous. So let’s not talk about fashion. Let’s talk about clothing.

While taking a class in New York, I had the pleasure of hearing John Mincarelli lecture about clothing. Mincarelli wrote his PhD thesis on clothing as sociology and art and now teaches at FIT (the F@shi*n Institute of Technology). I was completely won over to the importance of what we wear – for comfort and function, but also for identity, social cues, and self-expression. Clothing can function on many different levels, from being sweat-wicking and comfortable to indicating gender identification.

Think about the broad shifts in attire during the last 200 years.  Historians have closely linked the women’s suffrage movement with bicycles and bloomers – symbiotic developments that provided women with independent transportation. Bloomers (wide, baggy pants that went to just below the knee, which simulated the look of a skirt with all the functionality of pants) were an integral part of the first wave of Feminism. Bloomers helped open the floodgates that led to the demise of the corset and a growing acceptance of trouser-clad females.

It is impossible to uncouple the relationship between what a generation deems stylish and the philosophy and gender roles of the era – the confining silhouettes of the 1950’s coincided with a backlash against independent women and a sense that women should quit war-time jobs, get married, have babies, and generally be more “feminine.”

I don’t support blindly following trends, and I especially don’t support buying cheap items made without regard for human welfare that wear out quickly. It is possible for an individual to look great without doing these things, even on a small budget. My approach, both for my own closet and as a general philosophy, is to have a strong sense of who I am and how I want to present myself in the world, given a range of occasions, moods, and weather. Knowledge of what colors and silhouettes look good on me also helps.

The wardrobe I’m building for biking is pretty closely related to what I would be wearing otherwise, but with different fabrics. Living in Minnesota, I come back to that weather issue. A friend’s dad is an arctic explorer who leads dog sledding expeditions. He says, “you’re only cold if you dress cold.” Put differently, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” Translated for bike commuting: “You’re only uncomfortable if your bike doesn’t fit or your attire is inappropriate.”

The beauty of this is that there are thousands of solutions to the problem of what to wear and what to ride. I am convinced that I can be true to my own style and aesthetic and be comfortable and occasion-appropriate. Every day, I see dozens to hundreds of ladies biking in something that is working for them. I celebrate every time I pass women bike commuting with confidence and marvel at the resourcefulness of their outfits. Form and function together? Heck yeah!


3 comments on “Fashion: that other F-word

  1. “I was completely won over to the importance of what we wear – for comfort and function, but also for identity, social cues, and self-expression. Clothing can function on many different levels, from being sweat-wicking and comfortable to indicating gender identification.”

    I realize that I think about my clothing, and how it identifies me to others, a lot. I tend to go with practical/ functional over fashionable, but that’s not to say I don’t have a certain style I’ve cultivated over the years. …Which is a fashion in itself, right? I often ask myself, am I wearing this skirt on my road bike so that people will get used to the idea of fast femmies? Or am I wearing this skirt over my bike shorts in an attempt to modestly cover my butt? Why does it matter/ Why do I do that?

    I’m happy to see you so eloquently working through the same things, in your own way.

    Keep up the good work! I am loving Girls Biking to Work. You’ll be featured on the GR blog within the month.


  2. Thanks for the comment Low!

    I think it’s worth being aware that we do think about what we wear (and would I argue that the decision NOT to think very hard about it is still a fashion choice/social statement).

    Sometimes I think it stinks that people get judged based on their appearance, but I also realize that it is a basic part of (almost?) every society. I have a visual impression of others, and they of me. When was the last time I judged someone’s professionalism based on his/her clothing? When was the last time I attempted to determine whether an acquaintance dates men or women based on what he/she was wearing? This may not be right, but it’s one way we communicate with each other non-verbally.

    On the other hand, the fashion industry is highly susceptible to zeitgeist. We’re already starting to see more street clothes made out of performance fabrics, and I was surprised to see that hi-vis yellow purses are trendy this spring (more on that soon). I think that cycling subculture is starting to influence the broader culture. How else do you explain the ubiquity of Timbuk2 messenger bags on the backs of college students who last rode a bike when they were 12?

    Someone could write a book-length sociological thesis on this…

  3. […] describe Girls Biking to Work as a “cycle chic” blog, because it’s not just fulfilling another fashion stereotype of what a “pretty girl on a bike” should look like.  I think Stephanie writes from a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: