Sep 202011
Barb Chamberlain in a gray skirt, white tank, green jacket, and green sandals. A typical outfit for riding my bike.
A typical outfit for riding my bike–which most people would never realize. That’s my point.

I’ve whined a bit about the constraints found in office-appropriate clothing that isn’t designed for biking. Honestly, though, if you have a reasonably short ride many of the things in your closet will work just fine.

Trust me—this is not about Spandex (although it’s pretty slimming, actually). You do not have to rush out and buy special shoes, special shorts that feel like you’re wearing Depends, special anything, to ride your bike.

You do have to think about what you wear for safety and comfort. Over time I’ve shopped in such a way as to create an entire closet full of “bike wear”: regular clothes that work well for riding. Here’s the list I’ve arrived at for my shopping parameters.

Reconsider, or prepare for the issues:

Straight skirts. Too hard to straddle the saddle. Less of an issue if you have a true step-through but still a challenge for freedom of movement. Just the tiniest bit of flare or A-line cut makes for much easier movement.

Secret modification tip: Many seemingly straight skirts have enough width or flare to work–it’s the lining that constricts your movement. Cut a slit at the sides of the lining and you’ll have more freedom for walking as well as for riding.

Really short skirts. Completely apart from the obvious flasher issues, I had a nasty moment with a short summer dress when, unbeknownst to me, the skirt hooked over the back of the seat as I got on. When I went to get off at a light I almost fell over. It was a non-stretch fabric so I was really caught. Luckily I had enough time to stand on the pedals, ease back a bit, and slide the fabric off.

This is not something the saleslady will think of when you’re admiring yourself in the three-way mirror at Nordstrom or Old Navy. This dress wasn’t even that short but the combination of straight cut, non-stretchy fabric, and short length almost created a wreck. You can wear them—just be prepared to negotiate with them.

Really long skirts. They get in the way when you pedal and can succumb to chain grease. If you can hike them up, fine, but how will you secure them?

Flowing skirts. Fabric could get caught in the spokes. Immediate disaster. The invention of the bloomer (thanks, Amelia!) contributed greatly to the emancipation the bicycle offered women.

If it’s a really flowing skirt, though, you may be able to improvise by grabbing a handful of skirt in each hand and tying a blousy bit around each knee. Or grab the back of the skirt, bring it up between your legs, and tuck it into the waistband. If the skirt design (or a strategically placed large safety pin) allows that to stay, voila! Bloomers.

If you have a skirt guard and chain guard on your bike this won’t be a problem for you.

Pants with flared legs. Chain grease and catching on the pedals. If you wear them you need ankle straps.

Fabrics with a coarse weave, especially for fitted pants or capris. Chafe, chafe, chafe.

Low-cut blouses if you ride a road bike. The forward posture may give away a bit more of your treasures than you intended.

Fabrics that wrinkle easily. Who likes to iron anyway?

Shoes with really slippery soles. Harder to keep your foot on the pedal.

Flip-flops. Your toes won’t thank you for the friction you create with pedaling and your foot will appreciate a slightly stiffer sole, although I’m not obsessive about that.

No problem despite what you might think:

Skirts/dresses in general. If you can walk comfortably in it you can probably ride in it. If you can’t walk comfortably in it, why did you buy it in the first place?

Burgundy T-strap stiletto heels.
Love these Bandolinos, both because they look great and because they stay on my foot when I ride. The T-strap works better than a simple slip-on pump (although I wear those too).

High heels, open-toed shoes, sandals, or boots. Silly but true: At a stoplight your foot hits the ground faster in a high heel than in a flat cycling shoe.

Dressy clothing. I’ve biked in silk suits and dresses. Why not? As long as I don’t go fast enough to sweat, no problem.

Regular clothes. What did people originally wear to ride bikes? Long before the invention of Lycra, they wore clothes. Just clothes.

Related Reading


Posts in our 30 Days of Biking Blogging Inspiration & How-to Series for Sept. 2011 30 Days of Biking

  1. 30 Days of Bike Commuting: You Can Do It!
  2. Why We Ride/Resolve to Ride–A Blogspedition
  3. Preparing to Commute by Bike: Get the Worry out of the Way
  4. Buying a Bike for Commuting: Some Questions and a Blogspedition
  5. How to Bike Commute: Getting the Gear Together
  6. Bike Commuting 101: Carrying Stuff
  7. On a Roll with Wilma Flanagan
  8. 30 Days of Biking: Week One Report
  9. Ride with your Community: SpokeFest Rocks!
  10. There and Back Again: How to Pick your Bike Commute Route
  11. Intro to Bike Commuting: Route Selection Part 2
  12. More Bike Commuting Route Selection Tips: Part 3
  13. Thinking Like a Driver vs. Thinking Like a Bicyclist
  14. Biking as Downtime and other Musings on Overproductivity
  15. 30 Days of Biking: Week Two Report
  16. On a Roll with Katherine Widing
  17. I Shouldn’t Assume
  18. Falling Down on Your Bike. It Happens. To Grown-Ups.
  19. Pretty Handy, Gloves. The Blogspedition Assumes You’ll Get ‘Em.
  20. What to Wear for Your Bike Commute? Clothes.
  21. How to Get a Dropped Bike Chain Back On, Grease-Free
  22. 30 Days of Biking: Week Three!
  23. It’s All in the Attitude
  24. Things I Now Do on My Bike Without Having to Think About It
  25. Mental Essentials for Bike Commuting: Risk and Trust
  26. More Mental Essentials for Bike Commuting: Friendliness and Openness
  27. Even More Mental Essentials for Bike Commuting: Tolerance, Humor, and Persistence
  28. Bicycling Rites of Passage, Spokane Style
  29. Dear Reader, I Chicked Him
  30. 30 Days of Biking: Final Report!

Your Turn

  • Any other clothing discoveries you’ve made about what works and what doesn’t?
  • What garment or outfit engenders more surprise than any other when people realize you biked “in THAT?!”
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Reader Comments

  1. Well … down here in Dallas where all the men are pigs, low-cut blouses are kind of a safety measure. The cars are more likely to stop for boobs than a bike.

  2. Bike choice makes a difference, I purchased an electra Amsterdam with the full fenders, chain guard and even coat/dress shields. In addition to a three speed gear box. NEVER fast enough to work up a sweat. Commuting on a bike is a privilege and a pleasure, why ruin it with exercise is my motto, lol Great article!

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