More outfits for the bike and the boardroom could mean more women cyclists

Meg Marvin
Nov 24, 2015 · 9 min read

I charged forward with waves breaking at my right, miles of coastal road in front of me, and the power of fifty other woman cyclists encouraging me in a peloton. As I pedaled in sync with the woman next to me, she was fast becoming my friend. We laughed exchanging stories of our failed attempts to learn guitar and lamenting about our lack of finger callouses. Conversation about how we met our significant others took priority over competitive drafting for speed. I couldn’t help smiling at the bold way my new acquaintance wore her bright Taylor Swift-red lipstick, as if to say, “Why wouldn’t every woman want to look this good biking?”

I was riding in the Rapha 100km woman’s ride in and around Barcelona, an annual race with more than 9,000 women from all over the world intended to give more visibility to women in cycling. As the ride organizer, Katerina Kolbu, explained, “I discovered a difficulty in finding female company to ride with.”

The disproportionately smaller number of female cyclists compared to men is not unique to Barcelona. In the United States, it is estimated by the Department of Transportation that only about a quarter of bike trips are made by women. This is surprising considering that at a young age, boys and girls ride bikes in equal number. But as girls grow older, fewer and fewer stay on their bikes. Why is this?

Many studies have attempted to explain this gap, and the answer lies in an intersection of practical, societal, and personal reasons. Consistently, safety concerns emerge as the biggest barrier. Although the presence of bike lanes has alleviated some of these safety concerns, cities can’t build them fast enough to keep up with the demand. Other barriers for women include the difficulty of transporting children on bikes and carrying out household errands on bikes, and the time it takes to do longer rides.

Another obstacle may not seem so obvious at first. When it comes down to commuting every day to work or around town to do errands, the lack of comfortable biking is a surprisingly huge barrier for women, as well. According to one survey of women in Seattle conducted by a researcher at the University of Washington, one out of five daily female riders report general concern about “grooming issues, bringing spare clothes, helmet hair, and arriving at destinations red-faced and sweaty.” Rachel Levert comments further:

“I do think there is a double standard for women to appear more professional and/or put together in an office setting. In order for me to be considered to look like a professional, then I have to have perfect hair (which takes a while), well done makeup, and then professional clothing which also requires a dress, heels, and matching jewelry.”

Levert is an environmental scientist in the Houston Area, who wishes she could use her bike to commute to work. She even went so far as to check where the nearest YMCA was to her office, in the event that she could bike there to shower and change to “look the part” for work.

While workplace showers is definitely one component of the solution, women also need more clothing options that are appropriate for both cycling and the boardroom.

Fortunately, this is starting to happen. According to a report by the NPD Group, there is a small but steady growth of women-specific designed offerings — a 5% increase in sales this year from last year. The latest innovations in women’s-specific biking clothes include modified fits in pants and shirts to allow movement, cuts to provide increased modesty on the saddle, breathable fabrics to reduce sweat, and reflective piping and trim for added safety and visibility. As a Barcelona woman cyclist Odet Chavez Ferreiro told me, “Little details make the difference.”

The market is moving beyond the “shrink it and pink it” philosophy of athletic clothing for women to truly examine women’s specific needs. Levi’s even launched a commuter line for women earlier this year (although a full three years behind the men’s line).

Is this the right kind of clothing that women are looking for, though? According to Lauren Steinhardt, an apparel designer who studied women’s cycling apparel at Oregon State University, many women commuters don’t like to wear cycling apparel because it doesn’t fulfill their needs for self-expression.

“Women reported that they would ‘never wear’ a brightly colored rain jacket ‘even though it is safe’, and referred to bike branded outerwear as ‘stupid’ and ‘dorky’ even when describing clothing they themselves wore.”

Elizabeth Denton, an avid bicycle fashion blogger and respected authority on women’s cycling apparel, sums up the market’s challenge up nicely:

“It’s a matter of personal preference — and that, I think, is the challenge of women’s design. Women have such a huge range of clothing options and there is something for everyone. The bicycle clothing industry (not Lycra kits) is still too small to be able to accommodate the huge range of women’s tastes, not to mention body shapes.”

Of course, many women throughout history have resorted to designing their own cycling outfits when the market has failed them. According to the Bikes and Bloomers project, as early as the end of the 19th century, Victorian women made adaptable clothing for modesty and fitness, including the Bygrave convertible skirt and the Pease sisters convertible skirt and cape.

Flash forward to 2015 and smaller boutique companies, founded by women, are carrying on this legacy going beyond just functional designs to satiate a diversity of women’s tastes for various styles and statements. Reid Miller Apparel was recently launched by the namesake herself on Kickstarter and showcases a designer-quality casual-but-smart tweed jacket and commuter jeans. Miller describes her mission on her website:

“I talked to women around the U.S. and found that it wasn’t just me that was left wanting by what bike apparel currently exists. I dusted off my creative energy and went to work.”

In contrast, Betabrand presents a more formal and traditional pencil skirt envisioned by graphic designer Mickey Roxas through the crowdfunded community. Roxas commented:

“If I want to ride my bike to work, half my closet (including some of my favorite skirts) aren’t an option.”

It may take a few minutes of scouring Google and Kickstarter instead of local bike shops, but the rights fits, cuts, and styles are out there. There are pieces on the market today that may even turn the heads women who don’t bike to work daily. It begs the question as Denton points out:

“People don’t wear certain clothes to ride the bus or drive a car — why should I wear something specific while biking?”

Here’s a rundown of several companies offering dressy, business casual, classic, casual chic, and indie fashionable styles for the modern businesswoman.

Dressy

From top left clockwise:

Business Casual

From left:

Classic

From left:

Casual Chic

Quick Study 24 Hour Dress: Shop

Indie

From left:

Accessories for all outfits

From top left clockwise:

More about featured companies

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