Caitlin Starr Cohn has a Ph.D. Apparel Studies at the University of Minnesota. She wrote her dissertation on women’s bicycling dress from 1868-1900. She became obsessed with bicycles starting in 2011 and eventually realized that she could combined bicycles and clothing into one research project. She lives in Linz, Austria with her equally bicycle-obsessed husband, infant daughter, and cat.
For quite a while, I’ve wanted to take photos of stylish cyclists, but the problem with trying to do cycling street style is that, well, cyclists tend to be on the move. As I was walking home wearing Mira one day, I saw a well-dressed man walking with a pink Brompton and a black Brooks saddle. Fortunately, he agreed to be photographed and gave me his card. It turns out that I’d encountered Lorenz Potocnik, a local author, city planner, and politician.
Lorenz was happy to answer a couple of questions about his bike and personal style. While in London about twelve years ago, he purchased his Brompton, choosing pink simply because he likes the color. His girlfriend at the time bought one first, as she was unable to walk long distances. He also purchased one and fell in love with the bike.
Lorenz explained that he doesn’t like to drive cars and that: “This folding bike totally changed my habits and lifestyle, as I take it everywhere.” He brings it with him when he travels, whether by train, car, or plane. A well-traveled bicycle, it has been to Paris, Milan, New York, and Boston.
Cycling also impacts his clothing choices. He said that pants need to be tough, a sentiment which any cyclist can understand. He prefers not to wear spandex, but wants his clothes to be both functional and elegant. He has a jacket (pictured here) that he purchased in Berlin, which both suits his personal style and is waterproof.
As someone who has studied clothing, I enjoy having a nice wardrobe and enjoy being “put together.” While living in Minnesota, I slowly acquired a good collection of clothes, purchased mostly on sale or second hand. Having a baby shifted my priorities away from my own clothes, partially because initially nothing fit or was functional for my stage of life. I have a well dressed baby, but I’m making do for myself until next spring when I will buy a few wardrobe items that I love. Maybe I’ll even be able to get a sewing machine and get back into sewing by making toddler clothes, but that’s probably wildly optimistic.
Before moving to Austria, I sorted through everything I had held onto (too much!) and narrowed down my wardrobe to clothes that currently fit, would probably fit in the next few months, and a few things I just loved and couldn’t let go of. This left me with rather full suitcases, but surprisingly little to wear in warm weather.
Most Austrian apartments don’t have closets, so one needs to buy free-standing wardrobes. Thus far we have purchased one relatively small wardrobe for a large apartment, as well as a dresser that contains baby stuff. Matt and I share this wardrobe and everything else is under the bed in garment bags.
I do not have space for an extensive collection of clothing, nor is it financially prudent to purchase many new clothes all at once. Most importantly, I want to make do with fewer items of clothing and build a collection that mixes and matches, largely for ethical reasons. My style is pretty consistent over time and I want to buy only what I love in order to be less wasteful.
So, last spring I bought a few things, only one of which– a shirt from the Austrian brand Gloriette– is really high quality. I usually buy neither very cheap, nor very expensive clothes. Okay, at this point I occasionally buy very cheap and never buy very expensive clothes. Obviously, cheap and expensive are very relative terms.
I’ve never had such a small rotation of clothes before and it would have been fine, except the quality has been a disappointment. Most of my clothes simply can’t withstand being worn (and washed) so often! Long term there are a number of different solutions to this problem, including making my own clothes again and making time to do proper repairs. However, it is disappointing to purchase a cotton dress that retailed for over $100, only to have stitches come out three months later. I fixed the problem by hand as best as I could in two minutes, but so much clothing is made to fall apart, leading many people to constantly shop for new, equally shoddy quality clothes. And how many people going to bother to fix a $15 dress they purchased new?
Purchasing second hand is another option, especially in the US. Unfortunately, I have not yet found any stores similar to Goodwill and the only consignment store I visited was asking 30€ for a cardigan that cost maybe 50€ new.
The consumption of poor quality clothes is a systemic problem, and only a small number of people can afford to purchase very high quality clothing new. Americans on average spend a much smaller proportion of their income on clothing than they did in the early to mid twentieth century, yet they own much more clothing. For now, I’ll try to wash my clothes only when needed and be as careful as I can with what I buy.
We’re starting to settle in to our life in Austria, but so far we have done very little to discover Linz because there has been so much to take care of. Our apartment is still only marginally functional and very echoey because we have wood floors but haven’t gotten around to getting rugs. I’m sure our cat looks forward to have some rugs to destroy.
The most exploring I’ve done has been during errands, but I am getting a better sense of the city. I mostly travel by foot, sometimes by public transit, and only very occasionally by bicycle. Getting set up to ride with the baby is becoming a priority because she’s big enough to safely transport now. It’s entirely bike path from our apartment to her daycare and from her daycare to my intensive German class, so I wish we were set up now. Unfortunately, my only operational bike is my fat bike.
We did make it to Wels to watch the end of the Tour of Austria. We enjoyed exploring Wels with a friend I made in German class and watching colorful, blurry cyclists fly by to the finish. There’s something to be said for watching professional cyclists on hill stages: you can actually see them. Still, I was happy that we made a successful excursion with the baby, who even took a decent nap in her stroller (napping is probably a subject that only interests her parents).
We’ve been dealing with a lot of thrilling paperwork. If you decide to move to another country, take the amount of paperwork you’d imagine there’d be, double it. Then imagine how long you think you’ll need to take care of it and quadruple that. In Austria, offices have very limited hours, which is probably a good thing overall, but is massively frustrating when also caring for a baby. Thank goodness for 3.40€/ hour daycare.
The more German I learn, the easier everything becomes. I’m currently taking a three week 20 hour a week class, and my German is improving daily. My speech is sometimes incoherent, frequently grammatically incorrect, and almost always ineloquent, but I usually am able to communicate and understand well enough to get through daily life. Many people here are most comfortable in the local dialect, but happily, the Volkshochschule (community college) offers a very affordable course on understanding dialect. My plan is to spend the fall taking intensive courses. That way, it will be easier to make friends and will have a better chance at finding a job as early as possible next year.
Admittedly, I haven’t been able to bike much in the last year, but it’s still strange to live in a place so full of bicycles without having any bikes at all. Not to worry, as several bikes (two road bikes, two fat bikes, one cross bike, and a tandem*) are on their way thanks to Freewheel Bikes and Bike Flights. I’ll still need to get some kind of city bike. We’re also planning to get a bakfiet, which is more manageable because the city we live in will reimburse part of the cost of a cargo bike: 800€ or 30% for one without a motor and 1000€ or 30% for a motorized one.
Exploring the city primarily by foot is a different experience, of course, than exploring by city. I miss the feeling of being on a bike more than how being without one limits my ability to get around, at least for now. Linz is very walkable and living close to all three street car lines makes getting around easy. We’re only a few minutes by foot to the main shopping area, though I suspect there are more interesting places to explore elsewhere.
Linz also appears to be eminently bikeable. There’s a protected bike line in front of our apartment and numerous other bike lanes throughout the city. The Danube is about 2 km from where we live and has beautiful bike paths extending in both directions. Plus, our apartment has a secure bike room, as well as outdoor bike parking.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve seen all kinds of different bikes, from the typical beater bikes you see everywhere to road bikes with cyclists in kits, to fancy mountain bikes, many of which appear to be used only for urban trekking. Perhaps the bikes just had a bath and our impression is entirely off base. I’ve seen parents pulling a trailer with a toddler and a helmetless baby, which I admit horrified me a bit. The only people I’ve managed to capture a photo of were two little girls who walked out of a building I was in with their unicycles! They hopped on and off they went, clearly the coolest cyclists in all of Linz.
*The tandem is now sitting in a box in the current suitcase/future guest room, but we’re waiting on the bikes we can ride separately
I haven’t blogged in over a year and here I am starting with an entry that has nothing to do with bicycles. But not to worry, I’m still interested in bicycles and plan to write about them in addition to my life on a new continent.
When my husband Matt suggested that he try to find a job in Austria, I only half believed that it would actually happen, which made it a lot easier to agree to the idea. Even when he had two job interviews followed by a job offer, I still wasn’t sure we would actually manage to pack up our life and move to another continent, especially with our six-month old daughter and a cat. And yet, here we are.
It turns out that neither the baby nor the cat were especially difficult to travel with and that our minor misadventures were not caused by them. Despite having read a friend’s account of successfully moving to Kazakhstan with her cat, I was particularly verklempt about every aspect of moving him. Haakon was fine. He had started sleeping in his travel case before we left and we didn’t hear a peep out of him the entire move. We didn’t even need to sedate him. The most challenging part of moving him was that he had to be alone in our new apartment while we stayed in a hotel. As I type this he’s sitting about two feet away from me, perfectly content.
Moving with the baby was more challenging, not so much because she was all that difficult to travel with but because babies require a lot of stuff. One Mira, plus a diaper bag, baby clothes and other supplies, a travel crib, a car seat, and a stroller adds up to way too much to transport. On a friend’s recommendation I wore her through the airport, which was definitely the correct choice. For one thing, she’s happiest when worn facing out and for another it allowed us to use the stroller to carry many of her supplies that weren’t checked luggage.
We flew from Minneapolis to Newark and from Newark to Vienna. We got to the gate in Minneapolis only a few minutes before families with small children were invited to board. She actually slept most of the first leg of the journey, which was uneventful. Then we got to Newark where we disembarked only to find that we had to walk down a rickety ramp and then up a flight of stairs. I’m not sure how someone traveling in a wheelchair or alone with a baby would have made it. Matt had assistance portaging the stroller, at least.
Then we got to the desk to get boarding passes for our Austrian Air flight, only to discover that United had failed to check us in and we’d lost our seats (though it wasn’t a full flight, so we weren’t in danger of not getting on the plane) and thus the bassinet. While someone contacted Austrian Air to fix our problem a fire alarm randomly went off and continued to blare for several minutes, which only added to the comedy of errors. Fortunately, they were able to move people around, so we were able to get the seats we’d originally been assigned. I highly recommend Austrian Air. United Airlines and Newark airport, not so much.
We didn’t purchase a separate seat, but we did have a tiny baby seat belt to attach to one of our seat belts during take-off and landing. The bassinet looks like some kind of miniature baby prison, but Mira slept in it for several hours. We hired porters in the Vienna airport to help transport us and our massive amounts of stuff. Doing so also meant we skipped the customs line, making it well worth the 100 euros we paid. We left a lot of our luggage overnight at the airport and took a more manageable amount of our possessions to Linz via the train. Fortunately, our new apartment is a four minute walk from the central train station. We were, of course, exhausted, but actually getting from Minneapolis to Linz was far easier than expected. Somehow we even managed to get from the airport to our apartment for a noon appointment at exactly 11:59. Dealing with a jet-lagged baby, however, was a much more challenging experience, but not one worth recounting.
A while ago ago I read a blog post (which, perhaps for the best, I can no longer find) that talked about boys’ and girls’ bikes from the 1970s. These children’s bicycles came with a top-tube that could be removed to convert the bike from a “boy’s” bike to a “girl’s” bike. The author of the blog argued that these advertisements demonstrate that there is no need for a top-tube, which is just not the case. Children’s bikes are not the same as adult bikes, so it’s not a fair comparison.
I love my mixte-frame bike, but it’s also my heaviest, most cumbersome bike. It’s hard for me to carry up stairs, for example, despite its “pick-me-up” handle. On the other end of the spectrum, I have my carbon fiber Silque that weighs less than twenty pounds. Granted, it’s hardly a fair comparison, given that I use them for very different types of riding. The former is my favorite commuter/ casual bike and it allows me to sit upright in pretty much any outfit. When I ride the Silque, I always wear spandex and my road shoes and I only use it for recreational rides.
Both bikes, plus my hardtail mountain bike, are women specific design, but what exactly does that mean? The Silque looks like a typical road bike, as does my mountain bike. Only the mixte-frame bike looks like a “women’s” bike.
As explained by an article in Cycling Weekly, women specific design bikes typically have different angles (longer head and shorter top-tubes) that are meant to work better for the average woman who typically has longer legs and a shorter torso relative to height. These averages are just that, though. Anecdotally, I know a couple where the man has relatively long legs and prefers “women’s” bikes and the woman is the opposite.
I should say that women specific design bicycles actually work really well for me. I’m 5’4″, with long legs and a very short torso. I also have tiny hands (thanks 4’11” grandma!). However, my proportions don’t represent the average woman, so a lot of women might be fine without a women specific design bike.
Dana MT Eaton, and one of the women interviewed in Cycling Weekly argue against the designation of Women’s Specific Design. Eaton points out that when someone buys a custom bike, it is designed based on their measurements, not their sex. I am inclined to agree that the designation of Women’s Specific Design is less than helpful, particularly given the assumption that men’s bikes are normal and women’s bikes are specialized. I am very happy that bikes exist that work for my proportions, however, I would love to see bike companies rebrand their bikes based on fit. That way, for example, a shorter guy with long legs will know he can buy the same bike as a woman with similar proportions. For the time being, though, I can live with Women’s Specific Design if it means I can find bikes that fit me.
This post should be prefaced by stating that, due to poor planning and general bike pickiness, I only had the experience of cycling in Vienna and that even there I only biked for about an hour and a half. However, I observed the impressive infrastructure and many cyclists (in all kinds of apparel) in Munich and Salzburg.
My husband, M. and I went to Austria and Germany for two weeks this fall. This tale would be more impressive if we were cycle touring, but wandering through cities we observed a lot of other cyclists, dressed in everything from suits to spandex to dirndls. And yes, you see a fair amount of dirndls and lederhosen on every day people. I particularly enjoyed seeing fashionable women riding to work, with the woman in dirndl (pictured) being the highlight. Sadly, I didn’t get nearly enough photos of the range of styles people rode in, but plenty of people commute slowly to work and don’t need to change upon arrival.
The infrastructure in all three cities is truly impressive. Munich and Vienna both have over a million people, but even smaller Salzburg (at 146,000) has a large number of off-road bike paths and bike lanes. Additionally, the drivers are so much more considerate of pedestrians and cyclists than American drivers, even in Minneapolis. As far as I could see, they stopped at all crosswalks where there were pedestrians. When we biked in Vienna on the road, drivers politely drove at our pace until it was safe to pass and gave us a wide berth. We saw parents biking with little kids on their own bikes on the road, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in Minneapolis, except maybe on a side street.
We noticed that cyclists on road bikes rode, well, on the rode and did not race along urban paths. The bike traffic on paths moved relatively slowly, as did we on our heavy rented bikes. I will say that we didn’t ride outside of the city, where less bicycle traffic might make it safe for road cyclists to ride on paths. Additionally, unlike, say, Minneapolis’ Greenway, which is relatively wide and allows for safe passing, the urban paths usually were too narrow to make it feasible for a cyclist to easily race along passing people (although we were politely passed by a few slightly faster cyclists that were unfortunate enough to get stuck behind us).
We were too jetlagged to feel up to biking in Munich, but we saw bike paths leading everywhere and will certainly bike there the next time we’re there. In Salzburg, the small farm/pension we were staying at had a small bike shop just across the street, but, like many stores in Austria, it closed early on Saturday and was closed Sunday, which was the day we were leaving. We also found a beautiful little shop, which didn’t rent bikes, that had presumably costly commuter bikes and accessories. M. is understandably particular about saddles, so city bikes and cruisers with wide saddles, both of which were easily available, were out of the question.
In Vienna we found a Trek store, which rented bikes, and finally managed to get out and ride a bit. They only had hybrids in two sizes 50 cm and 55 cm. M. is 6’2″, so he ended up stuck on a bike that was quite a bit too small, but given that he’s done almost 50 miles on the same size bike, a cruise around town was fine. The former was the largest (or rather the highest off the ground) 50 cm I’d ever seen, and was far too large for me, so I ended up with a step-through frame. Unfortunately, despite having handbrakes, it also had coaster brakes, which I loathe because it’s impossible to get the pedals in the right position.
We ended up riding without helmets, as they only had mediums. I need a small and M. needs and XXL, so given that we were riding about 8 miles an hour, off we went. We biked to Schönbrunn Palace, which is about 8 km southwest of the store. I find riding a bike I’m not used to in a new place to be a little unnerving, so I was a bit nervous in both directions, but I wish we’d had a chance to bike more. I mean, really, I barely biked enough to have formed an opinion. Mostly, I came to the conclusion that bikes with couplers might be worth it to make it easier to explore by bike on future trips.
Today, one might think of the term “women’s bicycle” in a couple of different ways. Casual riders may think of women’s bicycles based primarily on appearance. Although many men also ride drop-frame (step-through) or mixte frame bicycles, at least in the United States, they often are thought of as women’s bikes because they allow the rider to wear a skirt more easily than a diamond-frame bicycle. This understanding of masculine and feminine bicycles dates back a long time.
However, there are also performance bicycles designed with women in mind. Women’s Specific Design (or WSDTM as Trek calls them) are meant to fit average female proportions better than other bicycles. As a side note, there is an inherent problem with thinking of bicycles as “normal” bicycles and women specific bicycle’s, rather than as men specific bicycles and women specific bicycles, but more on that later.
Since the very earliest bicycles- velocipedes- manufacturers have developed bicycles for women. For women who rode velocipedes, there were early drop frames, which allowed for shortened skirts over bloomers. Women’s velocipedes had seats, while men’s had saddles, which had more to do with propriety than a deep understanding of how anatomical differences might affect comfort.
In 1885, the Rover, which some argue is the first modern safety bicycle was introduced at the British bicycle exhibition known as the Stanley Show. In 1887, Dan Albone introduced the first women’s safety bicycle known as the “Anfield Ivel.” The first mass-produced women’s safety bicycle, made the Starley brothers, who also invented the rover, hit the market in 1889.
The first women’s bicycles were designed to accommodate a woman in skirts. Some women did dress in knickerbockers or other modified costumes that allowed them to ride a diamond frame, but it was not the norm. Drop-frame bicycles had disadvantages. They had less structural integrity and thus tended to be heavier than men’s bicycles. Women riding in long skirts were forced to add accessories like heavy chain guards in order to ride safely. Still, specialized women’s bicycles contributed to making bicycling acceptable. They allowed women to wear skirts and also did not force women to straddle a bar, which had sexual connotations. Additionally, their heavier weight made it hard to ride very quickly, which was considered unfeminine.
In a later (post-vacation) entry, I’ll discuss modern women’s bicycles and why there is much more to them than being able to ride them in skirts. Indeed, for performance bicycles, skirts don’t come into the picture at all.
Over several years of reading mainstream articles about cycling, I’ve noticed a tendency for writers for criticize cyclists for wearing spandex. Henry Jeffreys, a cyclist who has worn spandex in the past stated (presumably somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that it’s “bad for the soul.” Certainly, spandex cycling clothes are not the most flattering, but does one always have to look good when exercising?
I often care about looking good while biking. I was rather mortified on my first date – a road ride- with my now husband when I saw that I was wearing spandex and he was not. Generally, If my main purpose for going on a ride is to get somewhere, then I’ll usually dress for my destination more than my mode of transit, although bicycling does tend to put a damper on wearing silk. My commute is only two miles, so I bike in whatever it is that I’m planning to wear that day, which might consist of a dress or a blouse with a skirt or narrow pants. When I ride to work, I also tend to ride my upright bike with platform pedals so I don’t even need to change my shoes.
For many people, casual riding (or even less casual riding) in every day clothes may work perfectly well. Much of the time, I’m happy to throw on whatever and bike. However, spandex cycling clothing serves a purpose. Well, it can serve several purposes, but I’m not here to argue for or against wearing team kits when not racing or whether or not riding covered in logos is problematic. I’d argue that it’s main purpose is comfort, and regardless of how silly it may look, it certainly succeeds at being comfortable.
As much as I don’t especially enjoy standing around in padded shorts, a chamois really does make a huge difference on longer rides. I have regretted most rides over about 15 miles when I haven’t worn cycling shorts, and yes, that includes longer rides on my cruiser. I don’t especially care about jokes about spandex. Trust me, I get that bib shorts look silly, but I am troubled by the animosity towards cyclists, which seems to be magnified when cyclists wear spandex. I also realize that on the internet one can find someone who hates pretty much anything imaginable, so I try not to read to much into it, but here I go, reading into it.
Understandably, people associate cyclists who ride very fast regardless of context with spandex, but I’ve seen people do absurd and dangerous things on bicycles wearing all kinds of clothes (never a ballgown, but I’ll let you know if that ever happens). But this association between cyclists in spandex and biking like a jerk does not necessarily reflect reality.
Jeffreys wrote that it’s more common for Lycra-clad male cyclists to act like maniacs, and that it’s rare to see women who aren’t racing wearing Lycra. His statement is at least anecdotally accurate, but I don’t really think it’s their tight clothing that’s the problem. I also see plenty of women riding in spandex, although it’s true that most of us aren’t wearing team kits. Certainly, I’d love to see more women, perhaps myself included, joining racing teams, but that’s tangential for the moment.
Not being part of a team, my spandex cycling apparel is admittedly a bit visually quieter than that the costumes worn by your average male road rider. Yet, it’s functionally pretty much the same: the shorts protect me from discomfort and the jersey allows me to carry objects without having to load down my road bike. Unlike when I ride in a skirt, I don’t have to worry as much about my clothing staying in place.
Without conducting research, I can’t say why many cyclists choose spandex. I’d hazard a guess, however, that many people would say that when going on long rides, it’s the best choice because it’s more comfortable and practical than any other option.
Quite a lot has already been written about women’s bicycling dress in the 1890s, although my dissertation is the most detailed research on this project that I have been able to find. There is, however, a fair amount of misinformation about what women wore. A common claim is that the majority of women gave up corsets and skirts when they adopted the bicycle, which just isn’t true.
It’s certainly a compelling story- that women discovered the bicycle, threw off their cumbersome garments, and rode into a liberated future. Yet, while there are numerous visual examples bloomers (or knickerbockers), there is not much evidence that they ever became the norm for cycling. They often were considered peculiar and even immodest. They revealed more of a woman’s legs than typical dress and their split form made it possible for women to straddle a diamond-frame bicycle, such as the one pictured below.
They were an easy target to make fun off and satiric magazines like Punch,Puck, and Life regularly made fun of women in bloomers. The myriad images are no doubt part of the reason that so many people believe bloomers were common.
So if women didn’t wear bloomers, what did they wear? Typically, women wore shortened skirts, although how short could vary widely. Some skirts were only three inches above the ground, whereas more daring women might wear a skirt that fell to just below the knee. It’s impossible to establish the average length, but most skirts were probably between lower calf and ankle length. Some women also wore skirts that were divided, almost like extra-wide culottes. These skirts required much more fabric, but some writers believed that they were safer and kept women’s skirts in place. The ideal divided skirt would look just like an ordinary skirt.
Women typically wore matching or coordinated jackets for cycling, but they also could wear a shirtwaist (blouse) tucked into their skirt. Some of the jackets I studied had boning for added structure. Many women continued to wear corsets, although tight-lacing was not recommended. There were special bicycling corsets, although in some cases companies may have marketed a special “bicycling” corset to convince women they needed more corsets. Some women adopted less structured corsets or health waists, which could have less boning or even cording in place of metal bones. Corsets would have provided bust support, although I have found no written examples were this purpose is articulated.
To the modern eye, many cycling costumes may not appear all that much different than other types of every day dress, but there are functional differences. Cycling costumes tended to be made out of sturdy wool, although there were linen costumes, as well. Some had features such leather stitched around the hem, which would protect the skirt from ripping if it got caught (and presumably also made it harder for the skirt to catch). Some women would not have purchased or sewed specialized costumes, but there were numerous options available for those who had the means and inclination.