Thursday, September 16, 2010

What We Wear Is What We Say

I normally don't think much about fashion, but William Gibson's brilliant novel Zero History has got me thinking about the functions of clothing and how it influences our experiences. When asked in a WIRED interview if he had ever wanted to wear a uniform, Gibson notes:
“When was I last out of one?” Gibson wrote. “The extent to which we are all of us usually in uniform brings to mind [Brian] Eno’s definition of culture: Everything we do that we don’t really need to. Pajama bottoms beneath a raincoat? Out of uniform. Jeans with one leg cut off? Out of uniform. Contracultural apparel disturbs us. Countercultures are intensely cultural. Bohemias have dress codes as rigid as those of merchant banks. We all read uniforms, constantly, whether we’re aware of it or not.
People who ride bicycles generally wear clothes and those clothes, for better or worse, are read constantly. Our clothes make statements and if you chose not to wear clothes you're really making a statement. Even when we think we're not making a statement ("I dress for function, not fashion") we're stating something. The people behind Momentum Magazine think a lot about fashion because they understand something of the power of fashion in our lives. "Normal" looking clothes can make cycling appear normal, fun clothes highlight fun, and so on.

My family and friends can attest to the fact that I'm not exactly the guy people look to for fashion advice. My main criteria for clothing selection has to do with how many pockets an item has and how well the fabric hides grease stains. My clothes project a certain Red Green aesthetic ("if the women don't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy") and strangers have been know to pick me out of a crowd when they are looking for someone who might be carrying a metric allen wrench.

On the Tour Divide this past summer, my local college jerseys (courtesy of Adrenaline Promotions) proved to be great conversation starters and I think the real cowboys in Wyoming (the ones who drive pickup trucks) were more inclined to think kindly of a biker in a Wyoming Cowboys jersey than if I'd been wearing the latest Euro-team kit. On my 2002 tour to Minnesota I crossed paths with a couple who credited their USA garb with making their trip much safer and more pleasant. There's probably some truth in their belief that even the worst bike-hating driver would think twice before honking at, buzzing by, or running down Old Glory.

This is probably about as much as I'll post on fashion, but there are many sites devoted entirely to what people wear while riding. A couple of interesting bike fashion sites are Velocouture and Copenhagen Cycle Chic.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


Peter Reichert said...

I used to ride in Lycra but once I became car-less and used the bike for all my errands as well as commuting, having to dress like a comic book hero didn't work any longer. Now it's street clothes and normal shoes on flat pedals .

ccollins said...

Reading your post, I can't help but think some of the heat in the great helmet wars among bicyclist, is the feeling of uniform, and the revulsion of those were jeans with one leg cut off, or bicycling w/o a helmet. (I'm not trying to restart the war, but you are on something, this is probably one of the underlying elements.)

Kent Peterson said...


I actually had some helmet stuff in an earlier draft of this post. I deleted it because I didn't want to fan the helmet war flames, but yep, you and I are thinking along the same lines. I think the helmet thing is such a hot button because of the uniform thing and the what we wear is what we say thing. Forcing someone to wear a helmet while riding is forcing them to say riding is dangerous. I can certainly understand the resistance to such forced fashion speech.

keithmo said...

When can we expect the "Not a Fashionista" t-shirts? :)

dexey said...

You are a fashion leader whether you like it, or not Kent!
When I restarted cycling 40 months ago I discovered this blog and realised that your climate isn't so different to the UK.
I'm now a Windshirt, rainlegs and single skin waterproof jacket user. I've added Shimano and Lake sandals with Sealskinz waterproof socks but can't quite take myself away from spd's nor towards a single gear. The last might change when I get the repair bill for my SRAM DualDrive :0)
Happy pedalling

texasyankee said...

When I say I'm not a fashionista but wear clothes appropriate to the time, place and situation, I'm saying a lot about my personality and world view.

Anonymous said...

You think YOU projest a Red Green image?! Me, I evolved my personal uniform years ago, right at the edge of acceptability for many different groups, and distinctive enough to be recognizable. I knew I had achieved some sort of success when I realized that I could show up at a Steampunk event or a Tweed Ride without changing clothes. I like that. Val

Anonymous said...

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BTW I love your blog!

blahdeblahblah said...

From your fan/sports writer in Butte, I notice you're sporting a Montana Grizzlies jersey. Appropriate in Missoula, perhaps, but some Montana State Bobcat fans might look at the top as more of a target than a shirt. I'm neither, as I cheer for the Montana Tech Orediggers, though they're not quite big enough to merit their own jersey. It was cold enough when you were last riding through Montana that you could cover it all up with a coat anyway. Thanks as always for the words.
Pat Ryan

Kent Peterson said...

Hi Pat,

You make a good point about team rivalries. Here in Washington State we've got whole Cougars/Huskies thing going on. As a species, our sense of tribe is quite strong.

Jessica said...

I really enjoyed the thought provoking quote. As a women being handy is an attractive trait in a man, when his "handiness" lol benefits her. LOL

That was a funny comment.

WinstonSmith said...

So I saw a young woman riding down Alberta Street PDX the other day, in pretty much "civilian clothes" maybe even a dress I don't actually remember. The thing is, I was dazzled by her gold metalflake full-face motorcycle helmet.
So what does that say the uniform concept? Does anyone care actually? I don't.

Anyway, seat belts & bike helmets are about the same to me. They're not unreasonable "insurance". I would probbly go helmetless on a tweed ride.

Ed W said...

One thing about dedicated cycling clothing is that it really hasn't changed substantially for over half a century. Other than the fabric, Fausto Coppi wore the same basic kit that we wear today. It's the best, most functional choice for long rides. Just about anything will work for short rides: tweed, denim, or even suit and tie.

But if a jersey and shorts is a kind of uniform, is the hipster's choice of ironic t-shirt and tight jeans any less a uniform?

Gina said...

"My main criteria for clothing selection has to do with how many pockets an item has and how well the fabric hides grease stains." Classic!!

Barb Chamberlain said...

I've definitely noticed a difference in how I'm treated as a cyclist/bike rider depending on whether I'm dressed as a cyclist (full kit) or as a bike rider (regular work clothes, often involving skirts and high heels).

Same bike, same application of rules of the road (which I follow), same waving and interacting and making eye contact with drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists.

I get far better treatment dressed as a bike rider than as a cyclist.

(I'm a Coug, for the "tribe" record :D)

Darrin said...

Very enjoyable post. I have to say though camo shorts and a T will do it for me....almost forgot the helmet of course!

leather jackets said...

I usually ride in lycra, but when I was without a car and the motorcycle used for all my shopping and travel, having to dress like a cartoon hero did not work. Now it's street clothes and shoes on flat pedals regularly.