My new cycling dress: Complicated thoughts on feminity and athletic pursuits

As you know, I have mixed feelings about dresses for sports. But last week I did the TD 5 Boro Bike Tour and they had a bike expo before the ride where they were selling all the things.

All the things was an incredibly diverse collection of bike clothing, including plus sized stuff and lots of clothes by and for women.

There was this dress. I loved the colour and the cut. So I bought it.


I also liked this one, from a Canadian company, KSL.

But they didn’t have my size at the Bike Expo.

What makes them bike dresses? Athletic fabric, rear zip pockets, and they’re the right length. The pink one I bought has an adjustable length. You still need bike shorts. You just wear them underneath.

I like mine. I do. But I still have some reservations about riding in dresses. They’re some of the worries I had about running skirts. I own one of those too now but I just use it for running errands, not actual running. See Running skirts and sexism.

I started riding in dresses a couple of years ago, when commuting to work. See Riding bikes in skirts and dresses. And I’m not judging anyone else’s clothing choices. This is all about me. I’m almost, in all things, a fan of  you do you.

Here’s me at the Tweed Ride in 2015, riding pretty comfortably in a dress, bike shorts, and my SPD sandals:

Okay so what’s my worry? I wore my new cycling dress one day last week and the next I just put on regular cycling shorts–you know the figure hugging, black, sports fabric kind I wear all the time–and a t-shirt. I looked at myself in the mirror and for a few brief seconds the thought flashed in front of my mind, should I be going looking like this? I didn’t feel fat. It’s not that. It wasn’t a body image thing. It was more that the bike shorts showed too much, were too tight, that they weren’t okay for a ride in public.

(But where else do we ever ride but in public?)

Maybe I need another cycling dress! But no..

It was fast and then it passed. But for a moment I got a taste of what lots of women think and feel about wearing sports specific fitted clothing. We’ve written here about athletic clothing as a barrier to women’s participation in sports. See No way am I wearing that! Whether it’s bike shorts, or the uni-suit required in rowing or tight race swimsuits there are issues for women athletes about clothing. There’s a tension between what we think we are supposed to wear and how we are supposed to look and what sports require us to wear.

I could see how if I started wearing cycling dresses all the time, that would become the new normal and the bike shorts would start to feel too skimpy, too tight, too much. And that’s not what I want.  See Fit and Feminist’s defense of skimpy running clothing,

So I love my new cycling dress and when I’m commuting I’ll sometimes ride in dresses but I want to leave lots of room for riding in fitted performance oriented cycling clothes too.

Here’s me in my new cycling kit from Sweet Ride Cycles in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia. (Thanks Sarah!)

More in the series of Sam frowning at signs on the bike path. This time for inappropriate use of quotation marks.

And here’s the the rear view of me on the 5 boro ride:

Sam from behind on the Queensboro Bridge, NYC

And here’s me on the Leslie Street Spit:

Always frowning at signs, this one for the bike speed limit

7 thoughts on “My new cycling dress: Complicated thoughts on feminity and athletic pursuits

  1. Just the existence of specialist ‘female’ sports clothing does feel a bit nineteenth-century, a bit ‘side-saddle and culottes’ iyswim.

  2. Wow that cycling dress with gearing design… abit tight. Not sure, I could cycle far in something that tight around the hips and legs..restrict leg movement..

    When we went to Europe last fall with our folding bikes, I wore my skort around in the cities. So I really had to pare down on clothing load for 2 wks. in panniers. I tended not to wear walking shorts walking the streets, unless I was going to the cathedrals. In Spain they tend to be stricter about this in terms of knee length. Yes.

    I never thought to wear a cycling dress nor buy one. To me a skort is more flexible in terms of what I can wear up top.

    Yes, all that cycling spandex can be a barrier to some women. Then the next best thing is cycling in comfortable shorts and a T-shirt with a little bit of polyester.

    I still cycle work in cycling clothing simply because I don’t want to mess up, sweat stain my business clothing. It’s tiring for me to find business clothing (and a long search) that fits me at a decent price. Cycling clothing is very durable..I still wear jerseys from 15 yrs. ago.

  3. I didn’t know cycling dresses were a trend! Of course, I’m not much of a cyclist.

    In terms of more options for women’s athletic clothing–I don’t like a lot of tight or skimpy athletic wear because I’m not personally comfortable with the attention it can draw to my body. Not because I’m ashamed of my body–it’s powerful and I like it a lot–but because I don’t want to be ogled. I know that will happen regardless, but still…

    I’ve now moved to Florida and the super warm temps are making me consider skimpier athletic wear. But there is still a lot of anxiety around the decision. I think that it’s a tough decision for a lot of women athletes.

  4. I agree with Jean about the KSL cycling dress– it looks super cute for all-purpose wearing, but wouldn’t work for me at all as even casual cycling wear (too tight around hips and thighs). Thinking about the many interesting clothing/context/body image issues you raised here, my $.02 is this: I don’t much mind body-hugging spandex/lycra bottoms for all kinds of cycling (road and casual), but for casual contexts, I prefer more coverage and also wearing something that doesn’t look so much like kit. So I have cycling yoga pants (Sugoi lucky cycling knickers), and newer gray cycling shorts from Terry that are a bit longer and look like casual walking shorts when not on the bike. For around town– errands or transportation– I prefer to look more civilian-like and less cyclist-y. But that’s me…

  5. I’m not a cyclist so I don’t have in the dog in the race when it comes to riding gear but, for me, I don’t think a dress would be that comfortable. When I’m not exercising, I prefer to wear dresses over pants any day of the week for comfort and aesthetics but not for exercise.

  6. Hi Sam,
    So glad I stumbled across your blog! I am a 50+ runner/cyclist who discovered the joys of skorts and dresses for those pursuits 10 years ago, and have never looked back. I am built pretty much straight up and down, so dresses work well for me. I don’t think of dresses and skirts in terms of body image, but I do think about them in terms of function and comfort. Admittedly, comfort does include my expectations of how well I blend into, say, a post-ride coffehouse stop. The added bonus of my collection of dresses and skorts is that they are double duty clothes also useful for casual everydaywear. We intentionally downsized by 50% a couple of years ago, and I love using my closet for things other than clothes.

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