Dressing for work and bike commuting while still being me?
August 6, 2013 11:20 AM   Subscribe

This morning I realized my current work wardrobe is not hacking it for work or for commuting. I need some new stuff but don't want to buy the same old stuff, but I also don't want to feel like I'm wearing somebody else's costume. Help! How can I feel like myself and look decent at work?

I'm an academic librarian on the west coast, so the dress code is non-existent. I typically dress like Ernie Douglas - plaid shirt, hoodie (or cardigan), and jeans or cords (lately they've been skinny). Occasionally I wear a polo shirt or maybe a striped t-shirt (when I'm extra casual) and in the cooler months I wear sweaters with my jeans/cords. When I have to dress up a bit more, I aim for a mod/trad skin look- wearing more fitted shirts (tucked in) with a blazer or nicer cardigan with chinos.

I'm a woman and dress pretty butch or androgynous. The most femme thing I wear regularly to work are long sleeve boatneck shirts, but they're unisex. While I am open to changing my daily wardrobe from 1960s plaid shirts to something else, I'm not really willing to go too far afield. (No skirts, dresses, twin sets, blouses or the like.) I have to do a fair amount of crawling around in dirty places regularly, so I don't want to wear stuff that can't get dirty and cleaned easily.

The problem is now I'm a bike commuter and aside from the sweat from riding uphill to work, I'm just finding all sorts of little weird things about my current wardrobe that are annoying me. I know I need to ditch hoods, but what kind of jacket would be good to wear around work/town without a hoodie. I have tried to buy jackets, but they all strike me as too modern or trendy. I want simple and classic, whilst still lightweight and good for damp/wet weather when it happens.

So help me AskMeFi! Give me some ideas to refresh my wardrobe and maybe finally ditch hoodies, but at the same time still retain my 60s mod roots. Pants (nothing too wide legged), shirts, jackets, shoes, whatever. I need help! The other wrinkle is that I'm vegan so won't do wool or leather.

Bonus round: I need a new messenger bag and am torn between getting a sling or a backpack. I have a gigantic messenger bag from Freight right now and I'd like something smaller. Right now my back is sweaty when I wear it, so I figure why not get a backpack? But then I think maybe I'm so used to a sling I should just stick with it.
posted by kendrak to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have much to say about clothes.

As for bags, I prefer a backpack just because I find slings to be too uncomfortable. All the local bag places - Chrome, Timbuk2, Mission Workshop, Rickshaw Bagworks all have great backpacks in a wide variety of styles. But clearly whatever is most comfortable for you is what you want.
posted by GuyZero at 11:29 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a bike commuter who is now commuting to the first place I've ever worked with even the barest dress code, I would offer up two pieces of advice. First, changing clothes at work is great. Even something as simple as changing shoes and socks makes a huge difference in the sweaty/uncomfortable feeling department. I typically have a sweater or long-sleeve shirt that I only wear during my commute, thus if they get a bit sweaty, it isn't a big deal. Two, I would ditch the messenger bag and backpack and go with a pannier, if possible. Ortlieb panniers are super tough, hold a lot of crap, and have things like shoulder straps so they can easily be taken off of the bike and carried around during the day. Honestly, after switching from a backpack/messenger bag to the panniers, I can't imagine going back.

Best of luck with the actual clothing advice -- I don't think I'd be much help there.
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 11:30 AM on August 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

I bike 4 miles in San Francisco to and from work year round with a similar dress code.

I've taken to putting my backpack in a rack either behind or in front of me depending on what else I am carrying. This has really cut down on getting a sweaty back. (I have a kid seat in the back now, but in the past have used a milk crate)
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:30 AM on August 6, 2013

There are some great ponte knit blazers, some of which are more androgynous. They straddle the line between casual and businessy in a nice way, I think.
posted by SugarAndSass at 11:35 AM on August 6, 2013

Merrell makes a line specifically for people to bike to work and then look reasonably professional at the office. I'm wearing a pair right now, even though I walk to work, rather than ride a bike.
posted by janey47 at 11:36 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: O hai, I have almost exactly this problem with the exception of not being an academic librarian (although that sounds like a perfect job).

I wear: pants from the Gap, mostly - right now the tapered-leg ones. The "skinny mini" ones would be more mod, though. I wear J Crew capris in the summer, when I can get them. I roll the cuffs once or twice. I buy both in a size that is not super tight, so that I can wear tucked in button front shirts. I get my tucked in button front shirts mostly from (well, really from eBay) but originally from the Gap, Old Navy and Land's End. I wear colored belts. I wear loafers socklessly in the summer, but used to wear soft leather oxfords. I wear men's cardigans from J Crew (also via eBay) instead of hoodies, sometimes their heavier fleece ones. I get these on sale rather than via eBay (except when I luck out). All these things are cotton, with the occasional wool blend for a sweater. Sometimes I top this all off with a Land's End "drifter" sweater (which frankly does not sound romantic to me, sounds like a murderous loner in Kansas in 1950, but it's a great sweater) - a heavy cotton crew neck. My shirts are generally solid colors or menswear patterns. I'd say the modness (and I have a mod-obsessed friend who constantly tells me that I "look mod", so I must be doing something right) comes with the rhythm of the colors, I think - so I might wear burgundy pants, shirt in a subtle color or pattern and navy cardigan; or dark olive pants, blue pattern shirt, burgundy cardigan, etc. I wear lace-up ankle boots in the winter.

In serious winter, I have an oversized vintage swing coat and also a bigger heavy fleece cardigan; I wear one or the other, a knit hat and a scarf. (I often wear scarves in the course of the day anyway - big ones in a fine weave.)

I thought of getting a backpack, but I like to be able to pull my bag around to get something out of it without taking it off entirely. Also, to me backpacks seem youthful, and I'm already not dressing maturely enough anyway.

My current bag is a secondhand Billykirk bag in a navy waxed cotton, but that's because I have back problems and when I carry a giant messenger bag I just fill it up with books and make matters worse.

I find that colorful men's dress socks add to the effect.

It sounds like bog standard hipster, but it's basically how I've dressed since 1994, with a brief interlude in the late nineties for vintage dresses all the time. And I think it looks more or less hipster depending on your general presentation and affect. I mean, we do have a dress code, and I seem to meet it.
posted by Frowner at 11:41 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've found backpacks to be worse sweat producers than messenger bags, maybe because the former don't move around as much? That said, panniers and/or baskets are the bee's knees.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:59 AM on August 6, 2013

Best answer: I cannot express how much I love my Outlier Daily Riding pants even though I'm sure they don't look as good on my ass as I think they do. I have gotten more than their cost out of them and they look good as new despite all the wear they've gotten. I had to hack about 6 inches off to hem them, but they are as comfortable and as wet-resistant as promised. Too warm on really humid days or on days when it's over 80 degrees, but otherwise, perfect.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:01 PM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Panniers are pretty much the best thing ever: they make your ride safer and more comfortable, and decrease sweatiness and wear on your clothes. Should you need something to carry around when it's not on your bike, there are panniers that have backpack/messenger bag-style straps: this one from Timbuk2's not bad. Alternatively, you can put whatever kind of bag you like in the more capacious panniers or baskets. There are tons and tons available in lots of different styles. Should you be interested in getting the weight off your back, I'd be happy to offer more specific suggestions.

About the clothes: I don't see much reason for you to change significantly from what you're wearing if it works for you. One thing I'll do if I don't want to look like I'm wearing workout gear for my ride, but also don't want to feel gross for a day of work, is just change out undergarments. Does more good than you'd think (and baby wipes are awesome for a quick cleanup to prevent grossness later).

I've got a pair of Levi's commuter jeans that I picked up discounted; they're sold as men's pants which mostly means they actually have useful pockets. They fit me alarmingly well, so might be worth considering depending on your build.

I'm not sure hoodies are as much of a problem if you're not carrying all that weight on your back, but what I do with my rain jacket is either take off the hood (it zips off) or just tuck the hood on the inside so that I can use it when I get off the bike. I'd think that would work with a regular hoodie jacket.
posted by asperity at 12:14 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh also - a while back I posted an AskMe on waterproof bags for cycling, so if rain is a concern check out all the great answers there -- "Rainy Days and Mondays"
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:16 PM on August 6, 2013

i am a female cyclist and most of the clothes i wear while cycling are crossover from my running and yoga gear. i think what you're asking for are clothes that you can ride in AND work in, but personally i make a complete change of clothes once i get to the office. if anything, i would look for clothes that stretch and wick but have a nice enough professional look that you can pull off at the workplace - over time most jeans will wear away in the butt so i would avoid those if possible (believe me, all my jeans have very thin spots where i sit and i need to replace quite a few because of this problem).

when it comes to winter time it's all about layers - my fall/winter coat is just a light shell that i got on sale from lululemon, and underneath i wear a wicking baselayer from Patagonia. my one complaint are the vivid pinks and purples that so many women's exercise clothes come in - i tend to veer towards blacks, blues, and neutrals if available. also, invest in some smartwool items - these are great at keeping you warm or cool as required, and not stinking up too quickly. someone else posted about the Outlier pants - if you can afford them i say give it a go, it's been on my wishlist for some time now.

for bags - i am fond of my Chrome bag but it does give me back sweat in the summer. this is not a problem as i change my clothes after i ride, but if that's a dealbreaker for you i would get panniers.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 12:17 PM on August 6, 2013

You can spend a lot of money on clothes that are made for cycling and also look somewhat presentable, or you can just change (and towel off) at work. I don't wear padded shorts for a ride shorter than ten miles, but I'd rather wear some yoga pants or running shorts than a pair of jeans with seams that will chafe.

And if you change before work, you won't have to hang out in sweaty clothes all day.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 12:42 PM on August 6, 2013

Response by poster: hey everybody! thanks for the answers so far.

a few quick follow ups:

my commute is 2 miles. i am sweaty, but not totally disgusting and usually dry off quickly. because of the short duration, i'd rather not change. now it definitely feels like my hood is a blanket on my back, which is annoying.

the main problem i've had with pants are either the cut makes it impossible to mount/dismount or the crotches wear out in months. i patch them, but also would rather not have janky jeans.

for bags i'm pretty much committed to getting another one from freight, just not sure on the style. i like the company and love the bag i currently have. (just wish my mom listened to me when i asked for a medium instead of buying the biggest bag they sold.) i might get paniers for my next bike, but not on my current one. (swobo sanchez converted to a 3-speed.)
posted by kendrak at 12:54 PM on August 6, 2013

So now this pants problem you have. How many pairs of pants do you own? Or are you (like me) not quite as small in the legs as some folks?

I actually don't wear cords or jeans mostly for other reasons but also because I've noticed that these allegedly robust materials wear out pretty easily from rubbing against the bike. My Gap sorta-twills last pretty well. I feel like most pants really aren't designed for steady daily bike commuting and therefore, well, they're gonna wear out in the crotch/thighs in two or three years, and that's just how it's going to be. I expect to have a pair of pants in regular rotation for perhaps two years, and by "regular rotation" I mean two wears per week, half the year. (Our weather is such here that I have to have summer and winter pants.)

I would suggest putting some money into some more "mainstream" pants. Back in the day, when I was somewhat thinner and the thrift stores were better, I wore a more eccentric selection of pants, and they were not actually that great - stiff poly-cotton workwear cords, things that were either tight or really baggy, things with very little stretch. The bad fit made them wear out sooner because they were always being pulled this way and that. I also used to insist on 100% cotton pants whenever I bought any new ones, and that wasn't very good either.

Now that I think about it, I also get some pants from Talbot's, sometimes on their end of season clearance and sometimes via eBay. Now, those are some mainstream pants, but I have a couple of pairs of skinny stretch pants from them that wear like fucking iron. If I could wear skinny pants to work, I'd be set for years.

Stretch twill wears best, in my experience, and the mainstream/slightly more expensive kind of stretch twill (but not ultra high-end, they are always trying weird things with fabric) best of all. Also, it's important to Have Enough Pants. If you're being seriously punk rock and wearing the same cords four days a week (which would not be out of character for certain bike-commuting skilled workers I know) then yes, they're going to wear out really fast. I find that I need at least four and preferably five or six pairs per season, plus shorts for summer and a couple of pairs of the skinny sort for weekends.

I am also experimenting with pre-reinforcing the thighs with internal iron-on patches, but I haven't been doing this long enough to see if it helps.

Also, if I were a serious vegan (I'm a fake vegan; I don't worry much about wool or leather when they are secondhand, which is all kinds of inconsistent, but I actually have thought about the question of vegan shoes) I would probably wear canvas chukkas and slip-ons, scotchguarding them to make them more water/stainproof.
posted by Frowner at 1:11 PM on August 6, 2013

(Also, my bike commute is 4 - 5 miles depending on route, and I don't change clothes at work unless it's the few really, really hot and really, really humid days in the middle of the summer. And I don't think I'm a gross sweaty mess.)
posted by Frowner at 1:13 PM on August 6, 2013

Also, I know some women who swear by Wick'ems (also available at Bare Necessities) to combat the underboob sweat when it gets hot or humid outside. I think they're okay, but I find my Icebreaker bras are better. Since the wool is not an option for you, you might try the Wick'ems, if you don't feel like swapping out the underclothes when you get to work.
posted by crush-onastick at 1:22 PM on August 6, 2013

If wearing out your thighs and seat are a concern, go half way with a half change. Put on a work top and move your gear to panniers, cycle wearing yoga pants, swap out your bottoms and pants when you hit the office.
posted by tilde at 1:34 PM on August 6, 2013

You might not have to ditch the hoodie--have you tried wearing a lightweight wool one instead of the usual cotton? In general I'm trying to build up my collection of wool t-shirts and hoodies for such purposes since wool dries so much faster. But that stuff is expensive and I only buy it when it is super on sale. I'm also a big fan of arm warmers + bandana or scarf for temperature regulation.

Some of my cyclist friends swear by Dickies pants, I think because they tend to last longer and are fairly cheap.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 2:01 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Dickies - my pants lasted forever.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:09 PM on August 6, 2013

Re: crotch of pants wearing out - can you get a pair of baggy pants to wear over regular pants to make your regular pants last longer? You can get baggy, elastic waist pants at thrift shops. If my work pants wore out that fast, it would get expensive.
posted by theora55 at 2:15 PM on August 6, 2013

hi I am like you in that I work in a mainly casual environment and ride to work daily in all manner of weather. I have been doing this for 20 years give or take here and there. I currently commute 5K one way and I hear you on messing around with changing. Screw that noise. I am fortunate in that my morning commute is primarily downhill on shaded bikeway so I can get away with being lazy and shower-free.

I don't wear jeans daily but I can vouch for the supreme awesomeness of Dickies. Properly fit and hemmed, they look quite nice and wear like iron. Also some cycling manufacturers like Pearl Izumi and Chrome make urban streetwear knickers that are fashionable, sweat-free and virtually indestructible. They can get spendy, although Chrome has had a sale going on their Vanya knicks for ages that makes them a pretty decent choice, if only because the one pair of Chrome knickers I own (the men's because I got them prior to them coming out with women's stuff) has lasted for over a decade.

Proper rainwear helps tons for the rain question - I got a decent set of rain pants and jacket from REI but you could totally go to Dicks or even Target and probably find something comparable that would work. Golfing / hiking rain pants would work fine if you add a simple velcro leg band on the driveside to keep the cuff out of the drivetrain.

Wear wool if you can possibly manage it, but I have found some fantastically fashionable, affordable and technically competent hoodies and tops by haunting the closeout bins at places like REI or shopping online at Cabelas, etc. My go-to piece is an REI hoodie that is constructed from some magical slightly fleece-backed knit poly blend plain black material. I bought it in (I think?) 2004 and it is still going strong to this day. It's a nice slim cut piece with a quasi-military styling, excellent pockets, and it has seen more weather than I care to remember.

I assume the clothes are your main focus owing to expense, but since I am a major bike nerd, I'll just slip in a word about bikes here. If your commuter does not have fenders, a pannier rack, and a chain guard, just these simple things alone can de-suck-ify all-weather commuting immensely. If you have the means with which to add a (greaseless, maintenance free) Gates belt drivetrain to the equation, then you're really in the groove. Because despite that I am a licensed bicycle racer and have several uber-fancy lightweight high end racing rigs, my very next city bike (that I will procure in the next 2 months) is going to be a Gates drive, internally geared, purpose-built citybike. Not necessarily that exact one, but one very much like it (preferably with a 5 or 8 speed hub tbh because Boulder) These are becoming more common and affordable by the day as more people on this side of the Atlantic grok the realities of urban riding. For myself I am sick to death of futzing around with slipping drivetrains and shitty cheap bearings, etc... on my el cheapo fixie beater bikes plus getting grease on my legs or worrying about whether I could potentially wear a skirt or pick up groceries or whatever, so something like that bike I linked is a serious, purpose-built tool for the job intended.
posted by lonefrontranger at 3:18 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Rivendell Catalog is a great source for normal clothing that is 'secretly great for cycling' as they say.
posted by flug at 7:47 PM on August 6, 2013

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