This past May was Bike Month. No doubt at some point during the festivities your local municipality observed some sort of Bike to Work Day or Bike to Work Week, during which elected officials and advocacy groups assailed you with ebullient entreaties to leave the Hyundai in the driveway and ride your bicycle to the office instead.
Assuming you took them up on riding to work, you probably had to rethink your morning routine. And if you’re like most people, you most likely found you had to give the most thought to matters of hygiene and wardrobe. Hey, you’ve got to look and smell presentable at work, right? Therefore, depending on the climate where you live and whatever the weather happened to be that week, preserving your professional appearance might mean getting your hands on a bunch of rain gear, or bringing a change of clothes, or securing a place to shower before you take the helm at your cubicle and get cracking on those TPS reports.
Given all that extra hassle, I really can’t blame you if, on the following Monday, you decided to leave the bike at home, fire up the Sonata, and use the climate control to cryogenically preserve your appearance. However, I do hope that your brief foray into bicycle commuting at least inspired you to consider the absurdity of having to worry so much about your clothes in the first place. You’re a person going from one place to another, not a liver en route to a transplant, and there’s absolutely no reason you should have to keep yourself at the optimum temperature at all times—apart from our culture’s ridiculous fixation on wearing “business casual” clothing while operating a computer for a paycheck, that is.
And I put it to you that this fixation on clothes is destroying the planet.
“Get out of here!” you’re now shouting at your computer or mobile device. How is my work outfit destroying the planet? It was on sale at Banana Republic! Well, not only does your dress code compel you to drive to work, which causes pollution and creates traffic, but it also means you’ve got to be heated and/or air conditioned on either end of your commute, which takes energy. Lots of energy. In other words, you, your city, and the company you work for are collectively squandering a shitload of resources and pumping a fuckton of emissions into the atmosphere just so everybody can dress like it’s 68 degrees and sunny at all times, regardless of whether it’s February in Providence or winter in Tucson.
You, your city, and the company you work for are collectively squandering a shitload of resources just so everybody can dress like it’s 68 degrees and sunny at all times, regardless of whether it’s February in Providence or winter in Tucson.
Of course, as we all know, clothing itself is a byproduct of sin: Adam and Eve disobeyed The Lord™, ate from the Tree of Knowledge©, and next thing you know they’re trying on fig leaves. Still, for thousands of years we made it work, balancing modesty with comfort by fashioning clothing appropriate for whatever environment we happened to be inhabiting. It all went wrong during colonialism when Europeans insisted on wearing their stupid frilly get-ups in even the most inhospitable conditions. Now we’ve got a wildly inefficient fossil fuel-burning infrastructure built almost entirely so people can wear neckties without getting sweaty, or heels without having to walk more than a few feet at a time. In fact, I’m willing to bet that at least half the for-hire car traffic in New York City is due entirely to shirt and shoe choice.
Even cyclists, who really should know better when it comes to functional clothing, have sartorial hang-ups that border on puritanical—and I’m not just talking about the ceremonial headgear known as the “helmet.” One of the very best ways to stay cool on a hot day is to wear some sort of sandal (there’s a reason half the planet wears them), but tell someone you ride a bicycle in flip-flops and they’ll act like you’re about to take a pair of pruning shears to your toes. (Never mind that certain riders have made a career out of letting their little piggies hang free.) And while Lycra certainly has its place, it’s also important to remember that it’s quite possible to stay cool and comfortable while wearing casual clothing, and that the much-maligned cotton T-shirt is in fact a fantastic technical athletic garment. (Not to mention the fact that your stretchy roadie go-fast suit is an environmental nightmare.)
Now, I’m not saying everyone can just drape themselves in sandals and linen or wear T-shirts to work. Construction workers, first responders, beekepers… All these professions require special clothing and equipment, and often heavy-duty vehicles to transport that equipment. And while it should be okay to break a sweat, that doesn’t mean I want my waiter perspiring in my entrée or my surgeon’s brow dripping into my open abdominal cavity. However, if you don’t think much of our car-centric infrastructure serves to fill a bunch of office parks with people who are forced to dress like mannequins for no good reason, then you’re kidding yourself.
When it comes to getting more people on bikes, showing them the convenience of cycling is only half the battle. The other half is creating work environments where looking like you arrived by bike isn’t a source of embarrassment, and where you don’t have to dispose of the evidence by showering and changing clothing as though you just committed a crime. Hey, it wasn’t that long ago that jeans were only for mining and T-shirts were underwear; it’s time we take the next step in the evolution of casual attire. (Currently, the freedom to show up to work in “extreme casual” is reserved mostly for celebrities and tech billionaires, which is, quite frankly, bullshit.)
Anyway, it’s the 21st century, and you’d think we’d have figured out there’s often an inverse relationship between formal attire and integrity. There’s a reason you never see the Buddha depicted in a business suit.
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