Style in the saddle
From Victorian-era woollies to all-out elastane, cycling attire has had a bumpy ride. Thankfully, designers such as Timothy Everest are creating apparel for the modern rider that's as fashionable as it is functional
By Ryan Thompson
Unless you’ve been living in a cave in recent years, you will not have failed to notice the many and multifarious two-wheeled tribes ploughing very unique and often reckless furrows through the streets of London Town. If you squint hard enough, you could be forgiven for assuming that only a morsel of outgrown hair upon the upper lips of said riders connects these tribes, so different is their attire. And yet whether you’re a peak-cap-wearing fixie rider or a Day-Glo kamikaze commuter, it’s clear that cycling fashions today are warranting a great deal of attention not only from cyclists, but also from designers in the broadest sense. If it looks good on bicycles, what’s to say it can’t look good on bipeds?
However, the question in reverse poses a number of problems for designers of cycling-specific attire, not least the one about ‘performance’. How one looks stylish both on and off the bike without changing one’s clothes is a problem that dates back to the 1880s and 90s - the very heyday of cycling itself. Back then, the middle classes, being innately mobile in every sense of the term, wanted to take advantage of all the strongly purported health benefits of cycling, but were saddled with the dilemma of maintaining respectability while doing so. For a dignified Victorian gentleman of even reasonable standing to have exposed the merest hint of bottom cleft as he rolled along The Mall could have spelled social exile of a most embarrassing order; thus, cycling attire needed to be carefully considered. As a writer in the cycling press of the time was to note:
‘When a person becomes transformed from an ordinary citizen to an enthusiastic cyclist, the question of clothing assumes a different aspect. Ignoring the Scriptural admonition, he begins to grow solicitous as to wherewith he shall be clothed. He recognises, as every sensible cyclist must do, that whatever merits or demerits may appertain to ordinary civilian dress, its unsuitability for cycling is axiomatically certain.’
Cue the tailor-made woollen cycling suit and its woollen siblings the touring sweater, stockings, ventilated cap and doubled-seated knickerbockers. The tailors were, of course, onto something, knowing wool was an excellent temperature-regulator and could be relatively water-repellent at high-twist rates. Nevertheless, respectability required the cyclist to layer up, and no matter how breathable wool is, even the easiest of rides would very quickly render him a sweaty and uncomfortable mess.
Fast-forward 120 years, and those harbouring an incurable nostalgia for Victoriana cycling attire can still indulge their woollen fancies. In 2009, Timothy Everest designed a unique cycling suit in collaboration with Rapha. While it took its inspiration from gentleman riders of the 1930s, it was nevertheless an attempt to solve the Victorian problem of remaining comfortably elegant in and out of the saddle. Everest’s jacket, waistcoat and trousers or plus fours were cut in a Prince of Wales check cloth treated with a nanotechnology to make it extremely water- and stain-resistant. The jacket featured a storm collar that could be flipped up in inclement conditions and a shoulder pleat similar to that found in many shooting jackets, which allows for a greater degree of movement - particularly useful for gunning slipstreams on the drop bars. The cuffs could also be turned down to provide extra protection for one’s hands, while the undersides of the collar and cuffs came in a contrast pink for visibility.
Similarly, Everest also designed a cycling jacket for the John Boultbee collection he created for Brooks. The Elder Street blazer features sleeves specifically shaped for cycling (an accommodating cut for arms stretched forward), an angled storm-welt back pocket with entry from below, buttonhole closure on the back vent with concealed reflective straps, and reinforced Ventile elbow patches.
Where the Victorians came especially unstuck was in the genre of competitive cycling. Clubs sprung up all over the country, providing members with weekly races to prove their respective mettle. Such riders quickly became known as ‘scorchers’ - a depraved bunch with little collective purpose other than breakneck pursuit. As one commentator described in 1897, a scorcher was ‘…absolutely unmindful of the beauties of the scenery through which he passes, and neglects, in his one idea of pace, the clothes and customs of a respectable individual’.
Similar umbrage was expressed in an 1895 issue of Cycling: ‘They not only race in the most scanty attire - bare arms, almost bare legs, the short breeches at no time reaching the knee, being frequently pulled up until they are almost like bathing drawers, and with the rest of the costume so light and tight that it only serves to accentuate their form, and so loosely fitted that the rider finishes as often as not with bare loins - but they stroll about in front of the grandstand, and elsewhere, in this barbarous guise, sometimes, as we ourselves have heard, calling forth shouts of coarse chaff from the rougher portion of the crowd, to the embarrassment of the refined.’
Henry James could not have written a better passage, but I digress. Few Victorians could have predicted what was to follow in the sartorial wake of the scorcher: in 1958, one Joseph Shivers of DuPont invented a polyester-polyurethane copolymer otherwise known as Lycra. For the next half-century, the words ‘cycling’ and ‘style’ would finds themselves at opposing ends of the fashion peloton. Emboldened by lightweight frames and drivetrain improvements, the average cyclist saw an opportunity to become a commuting domestique, serving none but his personal best into the office. All of a sudden, greats trains of luminous bulging Spandex could be seen careering through narrow veins of traffic-strewn asphalt without a care in the world.
Thankfully, the past decade has seen dignity make its way back to the front of the pack, helped in no small way by fashion’s lurch towards a sports-casual aesthetic. Brands such as Rapha, Vulpine and Pedal Ed have all returned to natural fibres while affording design and performance equal attention. The result is not only better-looking performance wear, but a whole new genre of cycling-specific casualwear for the urban rider or walker alike. Given the option, no sane man would purchase a straight-up, no-frills cotton Harrington jacket when Rapha produce a woollen one with a wind-resistant front panel and a mesh lining on the back to aid temperature regulation. For once, style and performance are moving lockstep in the right direction.
With thanks to Will Manners of thevictoriancyclist.wordpress.com