The Cycle of Cycling Shorts
The genesis of major fashion trends, more often than not, can be traced back to a former utilitarian purpose. While the cycling short is a relatively simple and sporty garment, the lycra athletic garment has a lengthy past with a bright and versatile future. From the catwalks to the treadmill, the cycling short is one of the prominent key garments to enter the conversation of Spring 2019.
Dubbed as the transportation for the masses, the bicycle revolutionized the personal power and freedom of the late 1800s. Originally, the riders would wear their everyday garments, providing a challenge for women at the time—restricted within their highly gathered and elaborate outfits. As bicycles became widely available, specialized garments became more commonplace. Riders began to develop and wear homemade wool shorts. Although wool absorbs and wicks moisture, ideal for long rides that would cause the rider to sweat, the wool was scratchy and caused chafing, an enormous problem.
With the start of the 1900s, manufacturers began to address the demand for a garment that would provide a comfortable ride for travelers. To avoid chafing, factories began to insert a leather strip into the seat of the bicycle shorts, dubbed a "chamois" (after the animal, a mountain goat native to the European Alps). When the chamois began to dwindle in numbers, manufacturers turned to sheepskin for the insert, alleviating the chafing users experienced.
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By the 1930s and 1940s, bicycling had evolved into a more recreational activity, one that could also source competition. As bicycle races increased in popularity, users expressed the need for a product that would dampen the vibrations of the terrain, a piece of the experience the chamois failed to address. This was a problem for men and women, as they wore the same uniform to perform—something unique to the cycling field.
In the 1950s, son and father, Armando and Maurizio Castelli, introduced the use of silk into the bicycle performance market. Silk, inherently lighter and exponentially more breathable than wool, allowed for a richer spectrum of colors and dyes. Sponsors to the competitive bicyclist could screenprint their logos directly on to the jerseys, establishing yet another marketplace within the performance sphere. Castelli inspired the use of a wide array of synthetic fabrics within recreation garments, including nylon, polyester, acrylic and blends. These fabrics allowed for a moisture-wicking, skin tight, comfortable, and easily dyed product. In 1959, DuPont Manufacturing developed Lycra, a variation of spandex that has exceptional elasticity, along with notable color fastness (the ability to absorb dye). Originally marketed towards swimming garments, Castelli understood the necessity for Lycra to enter the cycling performance-wear marketplace. In 1976, Castelli released a one-size-fits-all bicycle short for public riders. Within weeks, the lycra cycling short proved superior to their counterpart, rendering the wool cycling short obsolete. Four years later, Castelli developed the first padded, non-leather chamois. Originally cotton based, the performance-wear powerhouse eventually utilized the revolutionary microfibers invented in Japan, bringing them to the Western hemisphere. European apparel creator, Di Marchi adapted the cycling shorts, adding foam padding to areas of high vibration, creating a less expensive version of the chamois.
Castelli adapted Di Marchi’s foam chamois and pioneered a new form of printing. Sublimation allows for an endless spectrum of colors and designs to be transferred to jerseys and shorts. This allowed for sponsors to uniquely identify their racers within the fields of athletes, and added a sense of professionalism within the field. This dye technique was utilized within the apparel industry, and eventually would be used with the modern day cycling short. In 1984, cycling officially became an Olympic sport for women. It had been previously a men’s category for almost a decade earlier. Together, the revolutions of Di Marchi and Castelli shaped the performance-wear marketplace for bicycling, and are the godfathers of the modern day cycling short.
"The cycling short offers a paradox, one of exposure and concealment."
In the mid-1990s, women-specific cycling shorts became widely available in an array of cuts and sizes. At the same time, the cycling short began to transition into the lives of the public, rather than simply athletes. The Late Princess Diana of Wales revolutionized the versatility of the cycling short. Often photographed in her colorful spandex and oversized sweatshirts, Diana sparked the transition from activewear into the daily wardrobe. Over twenty years later, one can draw direct lines between Diana’s fashion legacy and the looks lining the streets and catwalks of today.
The versatile athletic staple is simple, yet sporty. The 2019 version of the century-old performance-wear now is offered in an array of hues, prints, design details, and lengths. Virgil Abloh’s paid homage to Princess Diana in Off-White’s Spring 2018 Ready-to-Wear show. The finale look, an asymmetrical flounce white jacket and cycling shorts, was tangentially Diana, thoughtful elegance with a twist. Fendi, Saks Potts, Chanel, Area, Maryam Nassir Zadeh, and Nanushka are just a few of the fellow luxury brands recognizing the importance of the versatile staple within their collections, offering a myriad of styling options from workwear, casual, and formalwear. Blending the spandex with blazers, oversized tees, crew-necks, and cropped tops, the staple offers adaptability into the unique lifestyles of the exceptional women partaking in the trend.
Following the influence of Alboh, celebrities such as the Kardashians, the Hadids, Hailey Baldwin, Emily Ratajkowski, and Kaia Gerber have all been spotted, and relentlessly photographed, in their own interpretations of the cycling short trend. Countless influencers such as Lauren Caruso, Rachel Nosco, Michelle Li, and Brittany Xavier, to name a few, have embraced the trend, ultimately influencing the marketplace to embrace the spandex wholeheartedly.
Ultimately, Miuccia Prada offered the most intellectual discussion surrounding the trend, stating “On the one hand, you wish for freedom, for liberation, for fantasy, and the other you have this extreme conservatism.” The cycling short offers a paradox, one of exposure and concealment. Born of utilitarian necessity, the cycling short has now transcended into a staple of professionals, fashionistas, athletes, and modern women throughout socio-economic status.