It’s the Dress

It's the Dress

We took a casual ride over to a favorite restaurant for lunch today and along the way I couldn’t help but notice how much more courteous the drivers were being than usual. In two cases, drivers sitting at side streets waiting for us to pass actually put their cars in reverse and backed up a couple of feet to clearly signal that they weren’t going to pull in front of us. Neither needed to move out of the way; the moves were clearly a sign of courtesy.

When we arrived at the restaurant, I asked Michael, “Did you notice that?” She unhesitatingly responded with, “It’s the dress.” Her matter-of-fact response surprised me. Perhaps I’m just clueless, but I had no idea a person’s manner of dress on a bike could have such a noticeable effect on motorist behavior. Both of us were wearing sandals and riding upright bikes, which may have contributed to the overall picture.

We may be making some assumptions here, but Michael is 100% convinced that how she dresses affects how motorists respond to her. Whether or not this was the reason behind the courteous drivers we encountered today, one thing’s for sure; I never get that kind of treatment when I’m geared-up on my “serious” commuter bike. Who knows, perhaps there’s more to the British passing clearance study than I thought.

How about you? Have you found that how you dress affects how motorists respond to you?

Does how you dress affect how motorists respond to you?

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43 Responses to “It’s the Dress”

  • Ken Harris says:

    When I ride the beer bike to work, I usually wear exactly what I’m wearing at work that day. Jeans or cargo pants, docs, a polo or button-down shirt with a wind breaker. I don’t look like an alien; I look like the guy staring out at me from behind the wind shield. And the beer bike is a New Belgium Fat Tire cruiser from Felt, so I don’t look like I’m trying to win a race. I have noticed people give me a little leeway at intersections when riding this way as opposed to my normal commuter (a converted fully rigid mountain bike).

  • Velouria says:

    There is a whole “thing” about this : )

    The Mary Poppins Effect

    More on the Mary Poppins Effect
    (London Cyclist)

    My Take on the Mary Poppins Effect

  • Alan says:

    Thanks for the links. As I stated, I’m clearly clueless on this one… :-) It all seemed so obvious to Michael…

  • Garth says:

    Perception is a huge human factor. Bicycling in traffic is no different.

    Of course, that assumes that the motorist sees you in the first place, which can be a dangerous assumption to make.

    That was an interesting study. I have thought on occasion, more or less seriously, of attaching a 3 ft long wire to my left handlebar with a little orange flag that says “3 ft” on the end of it. After reading the study you linked to, I may now considering crossdressing. Transvestite cyclists of the world unite!

    Where did Michael get that dress? :)


  • Matt DeBlass says:

    Most of my riding is transportation-oriented these days, so I’m usually wearing “regular” clothes (khakis or cargo shorts and a dress shirt or polo, depending on how hot it is) and riding a bike with North Road bars and a basket, drivers, pedestrians and joggers seem a bit friendlier. I think because it does tend to “humanize” you and make you seem an individual who happens to be on a bicycle, as opposed to sport cycling garb, which tends to take on the characteristics of a uniform of sorts.
    Conversely, a certain percentage of cyclists seem LESS friendly than when I ride in lycra and on drop bars. But it might be they’re the type who couldn’t spare a nod no matter what I’m riding, so I’m not too worried about it.

  • grrlyrida says:

    Cleavage works too along with a pink bike.

  • Brian says:

    I’ve noticed a huge difference between wearing MTB baggies and roadie clothes, even. Baggies gets you some room, spandex will get you buzzed all day long.

  • Tali says:

    I had to answer “No”, not because I’m sure it doesn’t, but because I haven’t ridden in special cycling clothes for several years, and therefore don’t get a regular chance to compare.

    It would be nice to see the passing clearance study repeated with a larger, more independent sample.

  • Sharper says:

    I rarely dress in either of the two predominant styles* that stand out enough to make drivers separate “that douchebag bicyclist” from “that normal guy on the street,” but I’ve noticed that no combination of bikes or clothes on my part seem to make a difference to the motorists I encounter.

    I’m not sure if this behavior is a Mary Poppins effect or just one of the environmental hazards for aesthetically-pleasing female humans, but my girlfriend has reported similar results as Michael and Velouria’s bloggers.

    * 1: tight jeans, rolled-up pant legs, flannel shirt, fugly sunglasses and 2: lycra shorts, ad-plastered jersey, aero helmet, reflective sunglasses

  • Andrew says:

    I think it definitely stands to reason that if you look pretty – or at least normal – people will treat you better on a bike, as they do in life.

    Mostly I don’t really care, though. For the most part I am used to being ignored at best and scorned at worst by drivers, so I might as well just dress in whatever makes the trip comfortable, or suits what I’m doing at the other end, depending.

  • bongobike says:

    I guess I need to start riding around in my red and white striped sport jacket and boater hat and see what happens.

  • Stephen D. says:

    I don’t know if it’s the suddenly warm weather here in So Cal, but recently drivers are being almost too polite. Twice yesterday I was given so much room at a traffic light that I had to motion the cars to move forward to active the sensor in the pavement. Another driver wouldn’t make his right on red turn until he was sure he wasn’t going to get in my way.

    Wore my usual outfit – business casual street clothes over bike shorts (that don’t show). Gotta have that padding, just don’t need to show everyone.

  • Garth says:

    Part of it may be that a pretty girl in a colorful skirt is just going to get noticed more. There are ample studies showing that, in regular social interaction, the eyes are focused for a much higher percentage of the time on the pretty girl in the room than on others. If you can get the motorist to take active notice of you, that’s often half the battle. Assuming they aren’t one of the really hostile individuals out there. (Extra points if you knock over the attractive Mary Poppins over there!)

    I do not generally pick my attire based on an expected or hoped for reaction from motorists. I suppose part of that is that my regular clothes tend to be darker, particularly my suits and my regular winter coats, than I am comfortable wearing on the road for visibility’s sake. I also can’t, for instance, wear a long overcoat on the bike. Of course, my “biking” clothes are just regular street wear, chosen for comfort and visibility. And sometimes, as Andrew says, I’ll just wear what I’m wearing for the destination. And if I were to wear a full suit, I could see some taking more offense at that or less care with me, even though I would be dressed very nicely, in what I typically wear at work. Oddly enough, some people don’t like suits :)

    In any case, if Mary Poppins is wearing a charcoal gray wool overcoat, like some of the pictures on the cited Lovely Bicycle post, she might want to reconsider. To my mind, a pedestrian wearing a dark overcoat on a dark winter night or overcast day is the definition of someone asking to get hit, and a cyclist cannot be much different. Of course, whatever you are wearing, and whatever you think of the Mary Poppins effect, I think the safest policy is to always ride as if you are invisible to every other road user. It’s nice if they see me and politely yield to me, but I’d rather take active responsibility for my own safety than passively assume someone else is going to be looking out for me. After all, it won’t be their blood on the pavement.


  • dominic furfaro says:

    Different day. SOS. I worry about getting hit every time I ride. It’s not what you wear, but who is behind the wheel. There is going to be plenty of tragic accidents this year caused by drivers and bike riders in a hurry. Would it make sense to have slower speeds in city and towns during peak biking season? What say the Day Glo vest crowd?

  • Nico Forte says:

    Only way to really resolve this issue — an experiment. We’ll need a control group, thanks for volunteering Alan. One week, go with the pants. In another week, wear a dress. Report back with your findings. Remember, this is all for science.
    PS Please be sure to post pictures of both scenarios.

  • Karen Lynn Allen says:

    I think in the United States women in dresses/skirts on bicycles are still such a novelty that, yes, they do get noticed more. (On my bike, I have a wicker basket with flowers on it. That helps, too.) Plus I wave at cars that I think don’t see me, I extend my arm way out when making hand signals, and I gesture at four-way stops that I am content for drivers to take their turn, etc. Though I’m very concerned about being seen when on my bicycle, I have to admit I don’t wear fluorescent cycling jackets like my husband does, so I rely on other strategies instead.

    Guys in lycra with their heads down can seem pretty oblivious/impervious to traffic so drivers may (wrongly) assume passing them closely doesn’t bother them (not to mention endangers them.) When half of all bicyclists are women in normal street clothes, I imagine the novelty will wear off. However, unless human nature changes profoundly, young, pretty women will probably always get extra attention from surrounding males.

  • Jay says:

    I usually ride in a pretty “dorky” manner. I have a PB superflash and a bright front light running constantly, day or night, and I wear an ANSI 2 rated mesh safety vest. It takes up no space at all, so I just keep it in my rear basket and toss it on over whatever I’m wearing, which is usually normal civilian clothes, or slightly athletic clothes that look like civilian clothes. (Stretchy khakis, or bike knickers, etc.)

    I can’t say drivers are particularly courteous to me, but I don’t think they’re overly hostile to someone who looks so non-threatening. I think my experience would be far worse if I was in full kit, which I think is perceived negatively by drivers.

    I’m visible (as much as I can be on a bike), and I probably look silly and harmless to most drivers. I’m happy with that.

  • Karen says:

    People are always nice to me when I wear my Nutcase watermelon helmet. They all smile at me, especially the kids :)

  • David Bolles says:

    These responses are interesting. I have a long commute and choose a dress type that “Sharper” refers to as the “douchebag cyclist”
    I do kind of take that personally just because I find that fitted clothing is more comfortable for me to ride long distance in. I mean, I need to go as fast as humanly possible and isn’t that the point of riding a bike?!? (totally kidding!)
    Dominic, is right, worry about drivers every day!!!
    The majority of my ride is quite safe. I do have stretches where I have to be with some heavy traffic. I’m not crouched down as if it were part of my training for Tour de Nothing.
    I sit up(my bike is set to be more upright), signal, wave, etc.
    And those people could care less what my clothes look like. Really.
    Some are mildly annoyed I’m there, some don’t care… many are really getting used to me being there. The majority wish they could be on a bike as well.

  • Alan says:


    I think we need more than one test subject to get good data. Thanks for volunteering Nico. :-)


  • Eddie Hurt says:

    Alan in drag may end up doored instead. On principal.

  • Eddie Hurt says:

    Oops. I meant principle.

  • Ira Kinro says:

    I voted yes. I’m 5’11”, 285 pounds, and hairy – definitely not a pretty girl. :) I notice a huge difference in how drivers respond to my dress. I stopped wearing spandex. My wife says it’s ugly, and it seems to provoke the worst behavior in drivers. I stopped wearing a helmet, and drivers started giving me noticeably more room. I started cycling in a shirt and tie; since then, I have noticed almost no bad behavior from drivers. Some days, I wear a t-shirt and shorts. On those days, driver behavior takes a noticeable turn for the worse. “Dress for Success” applies to *everything*.

  • Adrienne says:

    You wanna see clearance? If I wear a dress and heels and put the kids in the cargo bike… I am getting the whole lane. Drivers give me a huge, wide space and usually wave. Interestingly, in that same scenario I am waaaaaay more likely to get cut off by other cyclists who think I am in their way.

  • Matt DeBlass says:

    At the moment, the bulk of motorists around me are pretty courteous (and this is in Central New Jersey, so take that stereotype!), but I’d really like to figure out what to wear to avoid being attacked by geese!

  • Pete says:

    I get a LOT of room on my daily commute, but a bit less on my weekend rides.
    On weekends, I wear normal shorts and shirts, not lycra pro team kit, but still look more “sporty” than on weekday commutes. I think having shiny aluminum fenders and usually some leather or canvas luggage on my Hillborne makes me look less like an obnoxious roadie, though.
    I’m totally convinced that people think I’m a bicycle cop when I’m commuting – I’m usually wearing black pants and a blue or black shirt or coat, my LHT is blue with various black and silver parts, my helmet is silver, and I have flashing lights on the front and back. Most drivers give me at least a whole lane, even if it means they have to move into oncoming traffic!

  • Garth says:

    An ex-cop told me once that my Nashbar garment pannier makes my bike look like the police bicycles we have around here. Maybe I should add some POLICE labels to it and see if that garners more courtesy on the road!


  • John L. says:

    I invariably ride in “street clothes” rather than a racing “kit,” so I can’t speak to the spandex issue, but I definitely notice that some drivers (not all) seem to give me a little more space when passing if I’m wearing my high-vis vest. BTW: my vest is not, strictly speaking, “cycling” attire, it’s the kind of vest worn by utility workers. These vests are available at any home improvement store, they’re cheap, breathable, quick drying, and can be worn over any jacket, sweater, etc.

  • Stephen Hodges says:

    I had the experience the other day of being out on the local paved rail-trail with my 12-year old daughter on her very red three-speed cruiser. We were dressed in “normal” weekend clothing, nothing bike-related (except helmets). She, being the wonderful kid she is, said “hi” to every cyclist who passed us, and not ONE cyclist dressed in the full weekend-warrior kit said “hi” back. Maybe I was just being protective, but I felt really insulted by this. It’s a weekend day on a recreational trail, not the Tour de France. Are they really so self-important that they can’t say “hi” back to a 12-year old girl who’s having a wonderful day bicycling with her daddy?

    I didn’t say anything to her, but I think there’s a connection between the aggressively dressed sport cyclist and the average driver, and in general between how cyclists dress and how drivers perceive them. These days, if I’m out driving around and I see a sport rider in full Lycra, I–a former “serious” cyclist who has ridden high-end road and mountain bicycles for more than 30 years–I tend to see a self-absorbed yuppie who thinks nothing of blowing through stop signs, riding in huge packs along narrow two-lane roads, or spending three months’ wages on a titanium racing bicycle and garish, skin-tight clothing and fancy shades. No wonder many drivers want to throw an empty can at them.

    Contrast that with the image of a pretty girl or a normally dressed guy on a bicycle that doesn’t scream “yuppie scum.” Duh!

  • Micheal Blue says:

    I think this goes even deeper than the clothes you wear when biking and the posture, though these are very influential, for sure. It’s also what kinda vibes you’re sending out.
    We pick up on that subconsciously. You can try it – bike while you’re smiling internally and you feel relaxed and in good mood. Compare it to biking while you feel stressed, frustrated, distracted, etc. I wear normal outdoor clothes while biking,normal shoes (or boots in cold weather), high-vis vest, blue cycling jacket.

  • Bob E. says:

    Similar to the posts from Pete and Garth, I recently realized that I must look like a bicycle cop to some drivers — my shopping/commuting bike is a red rigid mountain bike with a rear rack, aero rack bag and lights, and when I wear my hi-viz yellow weatherproof jacket and black pants I believe I get treated with more deference than if I were to dress more “normally.” (And as another central New Jersey resident, I’d have to agree with Matt’s second post about generally being treated pretty courteously by motorists.)

  • John L. says:

    I’d like to add to what Stephen Hodges noted above regarding the self-absorption of some (though certainly not all) recreational road cyclists. I only add this as anecdotal evidence, but it happens frequently enough that I suspect there is some validity to the observation. Just yesterday, for example, I rode my LHT with my cargo trailer to deliver some groceries to an elderly relative who lives about 5 miles from my house. I was dressed in shorts, t-shirt, straw hat, and sunglasses (yes, I know I should wear a helmet, etc.). Thing is, several drivers nodded, smiled, or waved at intersections. Along the way, I counted 6 bicyclists riding close enough to make eye contact. The 4 cyclists who were outfitted in full kit mode totally ignored me (I nodded at all, and tried to make friendly eye contact with these fellow cyclists). The two who were more casually attired acknowledged me, smiled, or said “hi.” As I said, I know this is anecdotal, and definitely does not apply to all roadies, but it has happened frequently enough that I suspect there is a culture of self-absorption among some serious road “racing” cyclists.
    Tom Vanderbilt, in his excellent book “Traffic,” suggests that there is an “us” and “them” mentality among motorists, and that most motorists see cyclists as “them.” Sadly, I think some “serious” cyclists see anyone not similarly outfitted as not one of “them,” either.

  • Jack says:

    I’m with Brian.

    Spandex seems to be the enemy.

    I was reading about Bike To Work Month and how to recruit new riders. The 1st rule was “don’t wear spandex” just to show folks it’s not necessary, but also, it gets a totally different reaction than “regular” clothes.

    Cute smiles don’t hurt.

  • iridebicycles says:

    I submit that it is not the dress at all, but rather the smile. Positive energy creates positive energy.

  • John Ferguson says:

    I live in a relatively wealthy suburb of San Francisco and we have scads of serious looking road riders. They won’t talk to you. They won’t wave. They’re focussed and generally only talk (loudly) amongst themselves. I have to believe that most of the non-cyclists in our community think of them as self absorbed douches as has been noted here. They take the lane, roll stop signs and shout when cars get too close to them.

    I have not noticed being treated differently by drivers depending on how I’m dressed or what I’m riding (people are generally courteous, with the occasional grumble monster as I like to call them), but I definitely notice being treated differently by other cyclists. I make it my mission when I’m dressed in full road kit to greet everyone (@Stephen, I would have said ‘hi’ to your daughter. Twice.), wave, make eye contact with drivers, etc. The ‘real’ roadies don’t know what to make of me. They’re utterly confused – I’m breaking some sort of informal code so I guess I’m not part of the club. Oh well..

  • Alan says:

    In defense of roadies, I suspect in many cases it’s simply that they’re training and their heart rate is high enough to make it difficult/distracting to wave, etc. My daughter, who has recently joined a mountain biking team, trains very hard now and she’s gone from being a sit-up-and-wave rider to a heads-down-and-hammer rider. She’s still the same sweet girl, but her priorities while on the road (at least when she’s in training mode) are completely different than when she cruised around on her fixie.


  • CedarWood says:

    Between the neon green cargo bike and the touring bike with upright handlebars pulling a Burley Travoy trailer, I definitely get noticed. “Oh, look at the wierdo!” Roadies stare curiously while passing, and I worry they’ll hit something and fall over, since they usually keep staring long after passing.

    Motorists give me lots o’room, especially with the trailer, even though it’s no wider than the bike. And yes, I ride in khakis, a shirt and sweater, and nice shoes; or if it’s raining, I’ll wear loose rain pants, slicker, and boots.

  • Dottie Brackett says:

    Definitely the dress. Michael knows what’s up. :)

  • Michael Nartker says:

    Someone mentioned earlier that drivers give them more space when wearing a bright construction vest. My experience with those has been mixed. I find that wearing the hi-vis vest at night is worthwhile, and no doubt makes me more visible. You just can not miss it. Wearing it during the day however, seems to provoke some very aggressive behaviors, so I only wear it when I really need it. My theory is that dressing in a way that looks silly to drivers (like wearing a bright yellow vest) has a dehumanizing effect. I suppose that most drivers no longer consider it silly after dark since most non-cyclists I speak to consider night riding suicidal. Therefore, not silly and not aggression provoking. Hi-vis gear must be applied judiciously.

  • Nate Briggs says:

    Hey Alan:

    I commute through an industrial area with a lot of heavy trucks and pickups.

    I make it a point never to ride without wearing at least one item of sports insignia wear (St Louis Cardinals or Chicago Bears … depending on the season).

    Guys in the trucks know sports insignia, and some of them are fans of the same teams. I’m suddenly not just a “weird biker”. I’m a sport fan … the same as them.

    – Nate (SLC)

  • Alan says:


    Very interesting! Now if I only had a piece of sports wear that doesn’t have a bicycle on it I’d give it a try… ;-)

  • Sharper says:

    My point was that I think alienation plays a big factor. Those guys in spandex are not as relatable to the average human (or judging by other responses, some of the other transpo cyclists), nor are the kids in their tight jeans and ironic flannel. The latter are trying to stand out, the former stand out by nature, but both are easy to identify and marginalize. Especially when they apparently haven’t taken Traffic Skills 101.

    Most mornings, I nod or say “good morning” to every cyclist I pass. Mostly; over the last couple of years, my experience has been that the closer the other cyclist is to either end of the equipment cost bell curve, the less likely they’ll return pleasantries. Oddly, though, it’s only the well-kitted riders that still refuse to do it, even though we might have been passing each other daily for years.

  • Matt DeBlass says:

    Hmm… as far as wearing professional sports team logos, I’m about halfway between Philly and NYC, so I’m guessing wearing a Yankees t-shirt might get 75% of motorists to give me a little more courtesy, but another 25% might TRY to hit me. As far as Devils or Rangers paraphernalia , that’s like a getting into a religious discussion in a Belfast pub.

    Maybe a jersey from our local minor league team?

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