Vélocouture

All dressed up, somewhere to go
Patrick and Holly heading out to the annual Alice B. Toeclips awards ball and auction. Portland, Oregon.

I started a group on Flickr recently called Vélocouture. I was inspired by the wardrobe_remix group, a place where people post their daily outfits and talk about what they’re wearing. I thought it would be useful to start a similar group where cyclists could show the stylish and functional outfits they’d put together for cycling.

Here are some of the photos that have appeared in the Vélocouture group. Many thanks to these cyclists and all the others who have contributed — it is a real joy to see all of the examples of humans cycling stylishly.

Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour
Paul on the 2006 Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour with his 1965 Rudge. Lake Pepin, Wisconsin.

on my way to the market
Pamela on her way to market. Oakland/Berkeley, California.

Wardrobe Remix Day 35
Tess prepares to pedal to the post office. New Bern, North Carolina.

There’s a widespread impression among people in the United States, cyclists and non-cyclists alike, that you have to wear some really strange clothing in order to operate a bicycle. I do understand the need for cycling-specific clothes for long or multi-day rides. However, if you’re a transportational cyclist, most of your rides are not like that. You can usually pedal away wearing normal, or even fashionable, clothing, with just a few key adjustments to how you normally dress.

A topic addressing this very question just came up on the wardrobe_remix group. I wrote a rather long response with some basic advice about practical dressing for stylish cycling, and I thought I’d re-post it here. This is in response to a query specifically about the warmer spring weather, so I don’t address rain gear, which is a topic all its own. Onward:

— First and foremost, realize that not all clothes that you like to wear are going to work for all cycling trips. I have some clothes that can easily handle a trip downtown but would be uncomfortable for a longer ride, and I have other clothes that I can ride in all day and still look and feel great. Oddly, my fancy dress suit is very comfortable on a bike, since it’s made of lightweight wool fabric and is cut to fit me well.

— Wear wool next to the skin. Nowadays you can get lightweight merino wool t-shirts in nice colors. (Worry not: merino wool doesn’t itch.) Merino wool t-shirts are very expensive (compared to cotton t-shirts) but you only need one or two, and they don’t need much washing. Wool pulls moisture (sweat) from your skin as you work, keeping you cool as you heat up; and it will also keep you warm if you cool down. It dries quickly if wet, and drapes well. And, oddly, wool doesn’t pick up odors very quickly. Those sheep have really designed a wonderful fibre for us.

— Similarly, get yourself some quick-drying non-cotton undies. This is a crucial comfort factor. Lots of clothing designed for travel or "adventure travel" works well for cycling too. I wear only Ex Officio undies nowadays, and boy, was I happy when I made the switch. No more bunching or chafing after 5 miles. For women, Holly recommends Champions 4611 hipster brief. It’s seamless, with no tags and good circulation.

— Wear many light layers, as opposed to a few heavier ones. This way, if you get too warm on the way to somewhere, you can easily strip off a layer and stash it in your bag.

— Speaking of bags, use a basket or some rear panniers/baskets to carry your stuff. One thing I do a lot is just stick my daypack in my basket and go. Then when I get to my destination I grab it and carry on as usual — nothing on my bike to get stolen, and my “regular bag” is with me, so I haven’t left any of my necessaries behind. You could do the same with a purse, handbag or satchel. Panniers are definitely more common, but a basket (front or rear) is much more useful for everyday urban transportational cycling, in my view.

— For outer layers, consider light wool, nylon, or other non-cotton options. There is a lot of "performance" clothing — some of it just looks like regular work clothes, and some of it is rather stylish, such as Prana’s clothing. Anything designed for activity or freedom of movement will serve you very well. Also, for cheaper options, check your thrift and vintage stores for older wool garments, especially shirts, jackets and skirts. There is a fabric called "tropical weight wool" that is common in dress clothing, and it’s fabulous for cycling if you don’t pay top dollar!

— To avoid getting muddy or wet, equip your bicycle with a good pair of fenders, and mudflaps front and rear. Avoid light colored fabrics, since they show mud spatters and grease spots like no-one’s business.

— Keep your bike clean and in good operating condition. This may not sound like style advice, but believe me, since I got better at maintaining my bike, it’s a lot less dirty, and I get a lot fewer grease spots on my clothes and my skin. And when your bike is in good shape, you’re less likely to have to stop and fix something, which activity can be a rather messy addition to any ensemble. Speaking of which, carry a clean-up cloth or latex gloves in your bag, in case you need to make an on-road adjustment or repair. (Or: wipe your hands clean on the grass.)

— Remember, if nothing else will do, there’s always the phone booth trick. This is where you are going on a long and/or hot and/or rainy ride and need to wear more cycling-specific clothes for the ride, and you change into something more appropriate when you reach your destination. It’s much easier if you are going somewhere like work, since you can stash your nicer clothes at the office. But there are lots of other ways to do it. For example, if you have a job interview downtown, arrive early enough to cool down, find a restroom in a coffee shop or somewhere near the interview (but not in the same building!), and do your changeup and a little primping.

These are just the basics. Over the past few years, Holly and I have tried out quite a bit of clothing on our bikes. Now that we’ve had a chance to let these garments prove their worth, some specific reviews may be in order. More on that soon.

— Patrick

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27 Responses to Vélocouture

  1. Phil says:

    Glad to see you posting again! As of late, I’ve felt like a peloton crashed into a Banana Republic commuting to work, wearing holey secondhand merino wool polo sweater/shirts up top and lycra on the bottom.

  2. Matthew Cole says:

    Hello

    Good tips in your response to the cycling gear question. I want to second the basket suggestion–I put a basket on my bike (actually, I use a Topeak rack with a removable basket so I can switch bike to bike) and use a Timbuk2 Medium Cargo Tote back there. This is a nice size, has messenger-bag sized adjustable straps, and looks good. There’s no pesky pannier-mounting hardware to dig into your side.

    Matt

  3. Scout says:

    Thanks, guys! Now I have another flickr group I have to join!

    I pulled out the sewing machine the other day, and am busy taking in and hemming clothes which have gotten too big for me. I have one favorite dress which I’ve held onto for years, despite the fact that it doesn’t fit at all anymore. Yesterday, I took about four inches off the hem and wore it to work. It turns out the dress is now the perfect length for riding a bike and serving pulled pork sandwiches and mac & cheese at the new job!

    I generally prefer to wear bike shorts on a lot of my rides, but I’m getting in the habit of wearing street clothes on shorter rides. This makes me far more inclined to ride the bike to work. I’m also saving up for some cool collapsable bike racks to make spring time riding involve more dresses and fewer backpacks and spandex! Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. DL Byron says:

    Very nice, just posted on Bike Hugger.

  5. Tarik says:

    Niiiice post. I am sending this to everyone I know who is on the fence or winges too much about bike commuting clothes…

    Tarik

  6. Kent says:

    Love the photos, very chic (these seem very ‘equestrian-esque’/have a very equestrian fashion feel to them) 🙂

  7. Patrick says:

    thanks everyone for your comments and further tips. I don’t think this is the last we will hear about dressing well on a bike.

    scout, a sewing machine is a velocouturist’s secret weapon. though I guess the secret is out! But you’ll have to write me offlist and tell me more about this yummy new job…

    Kent… I think your comment is really interesting and I have thought the same thing myself. I think it makes sense that the look would be a bit equestrian, since at their inception, bicycles were a substitute for horses. this is why we “ride” a bike (horse) but “drive” a car (carriage with a team of horses). nowadays, it seems more appropriate to term it “driving” (powering) a bicycle and “riding” (passively controlling) a car.

    Ach! But I digress!

    One more thing: Gonna post some sources for clothes, soonish.

  8. Fritz says:

    I love the velocouture Flickr group — many excellent photos there of people wearing fairly normal clothing for bicycling. Like Kent notes, the clothing does have an old-world equestrian look to them.

  9. Tarik says:

    OK, linked it . Great post. I will dump some stuff up on velocouture when I get em.

  10. William M. deRosset says:

    Right on. Bike commuting/getting around by bike in most temperate places simply does not require exotic clothing, assuming your chosen steed is equipped with the means to carry your belongings and effective fenders.

    I can only speak for men’s clothing and trips under ten miles (more, and I’d move closer to work), but worsted wool dress pants, slightly tapered at the cuffs, are as comfortable as anything to wear (much better than jeans or khakis). Add a permanent press dress shirt, loosely tied necktie, vest and jacket to match the pants, and you’re set. One adjusts one’s speed to keep the lather down.

    Leave the bike with the valet, grab your briefcase, button the top button, adjust the tie while walking up the stairs, and you arrive at the concours/office/interview/wedding reception dapper and ready to rumble. I suspect women’s dress clothing is less well suited to bicycle travel.

    Office casual? Dress like everyone else. Add trouserbands. Done.

    Thank you for the Velocouture group. A dapper bunch, cyclists.

  11. Jim says:

    I have ridden many, many long rides in my normal clothes with no ill effects. Two years ago, I discovered that one pair of my khaki cargo shorts was unsuitable for long rides because of thick, bulky seams and the cheap, coarse cotton fabric. That has been the only time that my non-cycling clothing has caused me discomfiture.

    I second the advice about wool, especially worsted wool dress pants. I bought two pairs of such trousers at a thrift store, and I can’t get over how great they are for cycling.

  12. James says:

    Great photos and what a fun topic for a Flickr group. I am guilty of wearing a crazy lycra costume most weekends, but I always commute in street clothes.

  13. Duketster says:

    I don’t see any tips for hot weather riding. I’m in the South and there is no way you could do any serious commuting here in the clothes shown above. Even Grant’s idea of wearing searsucker shirts does nothing down here. I’d like to hear from others in hot-weather areas and how they dress (non-lycra).
    Cheers!

  14. Patrick says:

    duketster, that is a good question. similarly, people who live in places with severe winters obviously can’t worry about fashion over function. and believe me, when it rains I wear rain gear. Anyway, I’d love to hear some advice for hot weather cycling. Even in Portland’s mild summers I have a hard time keeping my cool.

    best

    patrick

  15. Tess Lee says:

    Dukester: I don’t know what part of the South you are in, I’m in North Carolina. I’ve only been here for 3 months, so perhaps Patrick will do a follow up article after this summer?? I used to live around San Diego, and we had some hot weeks last summer. I have some very thin voille (light light weight woven cotton) blouses, linen sun dresses, and cotton sun dresses that look very sweet paired together, and are very cool to wear. I have some brown linen, perhaps I’ll make some short trousers, if I have enough left over from making a dress. I think short very light weight trousers will be a good staple, and dresses if your wear them! I think the most important bicycling accessories for summer is a water bottle, I sadly got heat stroke last summer and had to take a few days off of cycling to work due to fatigue.

  16. David says:

    Great Post! The Fixed Gear Gallery (http://www.fixedgeargallery.com) just did a review of knickers, several of which were a nice combination of style and function. The FGG crew take commuting seriously so they really put those knickers through their paces.

    ps: You guys look awesome.

  17. Jim says:

    I live in Minnesota, but we have periods of hot weather here during the summer. Last Memorial Day weekend I found myself on a 3-day tour in 100-degree temps with more than enough humidity (I’ve been told by southerners that we don’t have humidity like y’all have humidity, but we have lots of water evaporating here when it’s 100 degrees, and we routinely exceed 90% relative humidity). I wore lightweight wool jerseys and t-shirts and some loose-fitting khaki swim trunks with the crotch net cut out. Sure, it was too hot, but naked would have been too hot. The only relief was the occasional drink-n-douse from my water bottle and swimming.

    In the winter, I wear wool trousers with my wool long johns underneath. Then I layer wool t-shirts and sweaters as needed. When it’s really cold, less than zero degrees, I put a wind shell over the sweaters. I happen to think I look fetching on even the coldest days.

  18. Emily says:

    I’m loving all the suggestions. Anyone have any good sites as far as more fashionably-minded (but still functional) bike accessories (baskets, panniers, etc) that aren’t just the standard fare?

  19. Patrick says:

    hi emily,

    Chris at Velo Orange has assembled a collection of functional, attractive, and reasonably priced bike bags. He has willow baskets as well.

    For baskets, personally, I favor the simple classic looks of a steel Wald basket. On my bike I have attached an old (some would say “vintage”) locker basket to my front rack. If you have a front rack, you will soon begin to see “bike baskets” everywhere… all you need is a handful of zip-ties.

    Also check out Rivendell’s Nigel Smythe bicycle baggage, such as the Country Bag. Very stylish and it will match your tweed cycling trousers.

  20. Tess Lee says:

    This is the cutest bicycle basket I have ever seen http://ohjoy.blogs.com/my_weblog/2007/02/lace_bicycle_ba.html

    It’s definately not the standard fare!

  21. Pingback: Hargie » Blog Archive » the evening fluff

  22. Patrick says:

    tess, that is the crazy-coolest bike basket imaginable!

    hargie, thanks for the kind words.

  23. Payton says:

    Duke, I moved away from the South (near Duke, actually) in part because of the searing heat. I’d end up a soggy mess even from standing in the shade. Good base layers and lots of airflow will keep you at least slightly dry. I appreciate wearing a bandana in the heat, since I have dark hair that otherwise retains heat too well.

    For cold and foul weather, I actually just wear extra weather-proof layers over my usual clothes: like galoshes over dress shoes. Full- or even 3/4-length coats don’t really work for cycling, but otherwise I find that winter formal wear (again, often wool) is quite easy to ride in.

  24. Pingback: Movin’ » Blog Archive » Velocouture Friday

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  26. Dave says:

    I don’t currently have any bike gear except for a poncho for the rain…

    I haven’t ridden heavily through a summer yet though, so we’ll see how that goes this coming summer. I have a feeling I’m going to have to just deal with getting a bit sweaty, but I think, just like any non-bicycle activity, you just adjust your clothes and activity to what you feel comfortable with. If you don’t like being hot, you probably won’t go sprinting in the heat, so on a bicycle, just take it easy and don’t exert yourself as much. As has been said earlier, in some weather you really can’t help but sweat even if you’re not moving, so it’s a bit of a moot point, I guess 🙂 I’ll be really interested to try a marino wool t-shirt and see how that works out – patrick: would they fit well under a dress shirt?

    For winter riding, I just wear what I’d wear if I were walking or riding the bus or whatever. I have full fenders, chain guard and coat guards, so I can wear a 3/4 length wool coat and it won’t get dirty or get in my spokes or anything. I also don’t get spray from my tires, so I don’t have to worry about my clothes getting wet. Portland doesn’t have exceptionally cold weather, but I’ve found in my riding that if I dress just about how I would if I were walking, the warmth I build up riding is just about enough to offset the wind-chill from riding. The main weather concession I will make is that I will choose a hat or shoes based on how wet it is outside, as they make the most difference in how wet I feel.

    Regarding baskets – David Hembrow makes some beautiful hand-made wicker baskets. For panniers, Basil (a Dutch company) makes all kinds of panniers, baskets and other bags that can be attached to your bike – Clever Cycles in Portland carries a ton of their stuff, but they also have an online store. I have Basil’s canvas and leather panniers and I’ve been extremely happy with them. You do need a long back rack though to accomodate them without hitting your heels on them when you ride.

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