I was rushing to a 10 a.m. meeting with the director of the organization where I had just started working. In an attempt to look less disheveled than usual, I was wearing a long, red skirt. And I was cycling rapidly to get there in time.
Cycling became gradually harder the closer I got to work. Eventually, I couldn’t ignore the resistance to my pedaling, and I saw the culprit: The bottom of my skirt had gotten entangled in the bike spokes. I tried to extricate it gently. When this didn’t work, I started yanking. The skirt tore off unevenly, the ends marked by unsightly patches of bike grease. I looked like I’d gotten into a fight with an urban fox, and lost.
Dressing for a commute should be straightforward. Yet this becomes more complicated when the commute involves a bicycle, and when the clothing is intended for a woman.
Pants, like bicycles, have long been associated with mobility. Despite confining each leg, or more accurately because they confine each leg, pants allow greater freedom of movement: freedom from worrying about exposing too much skin, freedom from updrafts, and, as my skirt slaughter shows, freedom from flowing material getting stuck where it shouldn’t.
This isn’t trivial. Victorian-era newspapers reported (and perhaps sensationalized) female cyclists dying because of massive skirts that blew up and obscured their view, or dresses that wrapped around their pedals. A letter published in the Daily Press in 1896, for instance, commented of a cyclist’s death, “I think she failed because she could not see the pedals, as the flapping skirt hid them from her view, and she had to fumble for them. Could she have taken but a momentary glance at their position, she would have had a good chance to save her life.” Critics seized upon such tragedies to argue that women were unsuited to ride bikes. For some, it was more convenient to blame women’s audacity in mounting a bicycle than the restrictive clothing that made doing so perilous.