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Alisa Clickenger was a self-described “shy housewife” going through a stressful divorce when she had the dream:
It was 1940s wartime France and I was running. I was running for my life and somebody was chasing me. Ahead of me I saw this motorcycle parked by the side of a lake. There were bombs going off like fireworks in the reflection of the water behind the bike, but I just fixated on the bike and I started running toward the bike. In the magical way of dreams, when I hopped on I knew how to operate it. And so I started it up and I sped off away from imminent danger.
“I woke up with that feeling of wind in my hair,” says Clickenger. A day or two later a man in a leather jacket walked into the bank where she worked. She asked him how to start riding and he told her to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course. “Up until that point I was never a woman of very strong convictions,” says Clickenger. “But there was something about that [dream] — I knew I had to learn.”
In 1916, 26-year-old Adeline Van Buren and her 32-year-old sister Augusta rode from Brooklyn to San Francisco on state-of-the-art Indian Powerplus motorcycles. They were the second and third women to make this dangerous trek. According to Grace and Grit: Motorcycle Dispatches from Early Twentieth Century Women Adventurers, Gussie and Addie — as they were known — rode in “tan-colored leather from head to toe” including “leather pants, heavy, knee-length leather coats, calf-high leather boots, thick leather gloves with long gauntlets, and the de rigueur leather helmet and goggles.” As they rode through the desert portion of their journey, these outfits would become sweltering hot, though they were practical armor for winding terrain. This was not the garb of Victorian America — but it pointed toward the impending age of women’s gains which the sisters hoped to usher in. Though their trip was heavily publicized, the Van Burens’s dream of becoming military dispatch riders was lost in the shock value of the endeavor. One Chicago Tribune headline read simply, “Two Girls, Attired as Men, Travel on Motorcycles.”
If a recent T Magazine spread is to be believed, female motorcyclists mount their engines decked out in Gucci, Chloé, and everyone’s favorite biker brand: Burberry. A concept just as frivolous as that 1916 headline. The truth is, female motorcyclists have only recently experienced the full possibilities of apparel that caters to their wants and needs.
Fifteen years ago, when designer and stylist Jenna Stellar was in fashion school, she wanted to start a motorcycle line to serve women whose style fell outside both “motocross” and “Harley with fringe.” She had an interview with a motorcycle-apparel company to show them her designs. “I just got pushed aside,” says Stellar. They said, “We have our client.”
According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, in 1998 women accounted for a mere 8 percent of motorcycle owners. By 2015, the MIC reported that number had risen to 14 percent. Among Generation X and Generation Y owners that percentage was higher — 17 percent and 17.6 percent of owners, respectively, as opposed to 9 percent among baby boomers. With this increased market share came increased demand for fashionable and functional gear.
“Women have typically got short shrift on what’s available for us,” says Laura Smith, founder of Richmond, Virginia-based Worse for Wear. “Which is weird because we’re all riding on the same road; it doesn’t make sense that women’s motorcycle apparel would be less protective than men’s.” She’s been producing women’s apparel with her husband and business partner Scott Saunders since 2016. The locally manufactured brand sells riding jeans, vests, T-shirts, and reflective bandanas.
Before launching the company, Smith worked at Adobe. “I come from the background of a UI designer so it just makes sense to ask people what they want and talk to them about what the shortcomings are of the stuff they’re wearing right now,” she says. Safety is the first consideration. “Protective apparel has two main aspects that we focus on: the impact [and] the abrasion resistance," says Smith. Proper motorcycle gear protects the rider during a fall — from first contact with the road to the subsequent effects of sliding along its surface. The United States doesn’t have standards for road-ready protective apparel, so the brand follows European ones (CE) to make sure their clothes hold up to abrasion and impact.
Julia LaPalme, an associate editor at Motorcyclist, started riding 12 years ago. “There were a lot of ‘shrink it and pink it’ attitudes in [women’s] motorcycle apparel, as with other active lifestyle industries,” she says. “Shrink it” meaning treating women like smaller men, and “pink it” meaning put a butterfly on it. The clothing didn’t fit most women well, or offer an aesthetic beyond Pink Power Ranger.
Joanne Donn, the founder of shopping resource GearChic, says this approach persists. “I’m all for choice, and I’m all for colorful options, but why can’t you make a black one for those of us that don’t want anything to do with flowers?” she asks. Donn started her website nearly a decade ago because she couldn’t find a comprehensive resource for women’s motorcycle gear, or even something as simple as an A-to-Z brand list. She calls herself a “virtual personal shopper” and co-hosts the podcast Moterrific with her friend Cristi Farrell. Her product reviews have been an important resource for amateur and seasoned riders alike.
“It’s super important to us to be able to cater to as many body types as possible,” says Smith. Her armored denim pants currently come in two cuts — curvy and slim — but the brand will be unrolling more silhouettes later in the year. No female rider, once seated, wants that dreaded draft down the back of ill-fitting pants. “[Our pants] fit well when you’re standing up, but they fit even better once you’re sitting down,” says Smith.
Stellar’s dream finally came true when she launched her apparel company, Stellar Moto Brand, last month. She is a costume designer and wardrobe stylist who has worked on films like Hesher (2011) and The Sisterhood of Night (2015). As a fourth-generation Angeleno who grew up surrounded by motorcycles, she seeks to straddle form and function. “How can I find that medium: to get the girls who are super fashionable to gear up, and the ones who are already geared up to look fashionable?” she asks. Smith, Stellar, and LaPalme all point out that fashion’s embrace of “moto” style can be misleading to novice riders. This includes quilted leggings or chunky boots that may be motorcycle inspired, but certainly aren’t armored. Stellar cites a certain cult-favorite All Saints leather jacket. “It’s like paper,” she says.
When the Van Buren sisters made their cross-country trek, they were stopped by police for their unconventional garb. Today’s riders have seized on a plethora of opportunities that the Van Burens could only imagine — and not just sartorial. Alisa Clickenger now leads all-female motorcycle excursions through her company Women’s Motorcycle Tours. Last year she led 68 riders from coast to coast, retracing the Van Burens’ route for the centennial of their historic ride.
Gussie and Addie’s arrival in San Francisco was meant to be a victory rally — but, perhaps due to the various weather delays along their route, nobody was there to greet them. “The welcome of fellow motorcyclists was foremost in their mind upon completing the trip, and their absence was most disappointing,” reads Grace and Grit.
When Clickenger’s group arrived, the San Francisco Motorcycle Club led them on a procession through the city. “We pretty much filled one lane of the entire Golden Gate Bridge with motorcycles,” says Bob Van Buren, their great-nephew. “It was just magic.”
Adeline Van Buren went on to complete a law degree at NYU, while Augusta immersed herself in flying as part of Amelia Earhart’s group, the Ninety-Nines. What Earhart (herself of great interest to the fashion industry, most recently Dior) did for female pilots, the Van Burens did for women on two wheels.
In 1940, Motor Maids became one of the first all-female motorcycle clubs in North America. Their co-founder and first president, Dot Robinson, set high standards for their uniform dress. Robinson always rode a pink bike — complete with a built-in lipstick holder. “She was very prescriptive on the tidiness of the ladies in the club,” says Delaine Adkins, Motor Maids’ publicity director. The club is still steeped in tradition. “We wear white twill vests as our uniform and they’re to be pressed,” says Adkins, and they parade in white gloves. Eleven years ago they finally had to admit defeat when it came to the practicality of white boots. The Motor Maids’ oldest member is 93 years old.
“It’s interesting to see how some women use the motorcycle as an extension of their character and others use it as an extension of their alter ego,” says Clickenger. “I want to be this world adventurer that is fearless and takes the path less traveled, so that’s how I set up the bike.”
Stellar wants a bike that fits her aesthetic: “I don’t have an alter ego, but I would not be seen on just any old bike. I have a ’79 Kawasaki which is made to look more vintage.” Stellar has tried to channel this same timelessness in her Stellar Moto Brand, which launched with locally manufactured denim jumpsuits in two different fades. Leather jackets are coming out soon.
Stellar credits social media with the recent wave of apparel startups targeted toward women. Social-media-savvy women’s groups have facilitated skill-sharing and raised the profile of the sport among younger women. One such organization is the Litas, with over 80 branches in the United States and 17 countries. Any female-identifying motorcycle rider over 18 can join, despite her experience level. All it takes to start a branch is three interested women. The flagship Litas account has 69,000 followers on Instagram, and dozens of regional accounts. “These women are showing themselves as examples to other women,” says LaPalme. There’s a true sense of sisterhood around their brand and gatherings.
Of course, the sport has been subject to a bit of a Coachella-fication on social media by those who admire the aesthetic of riding, but aren’t necessarily interested in developing the skill set. “I find it funny when someone sort of adopts a motorcycle as a fashion accessory,” says LaPalme, although she’s open to the possibility they could become committed riders.
“The look is moving people into the motorcycle, versus the motorcycle moving people into a look,” says Stellar. There’s just something so appealing about a cafe racer parked on an outlook, with the setting sun perfectly filtered in the background. Or a flash of red lipstick behind a tinted visor and tattoos that just happen to perfectly match the carelessly knotted bandana that will only ever absorb sweat out of frame. Plus the armored leggings, now attainable, that won’t add an inch to your hip line.
The biggest difference between this dream and Clickenger’s is that Clickenger knew she was dreaming. “It took me years to become a confident rider,” she says. “I didn’t hop on the motorcycle like in the dream and speed away.”
Many of the women I talk to are from California, a state that has been subject to a good deal of America’s historical projections. It certainly seems symbolic that the Van Burens would end their ride there. The myth of California is the elusive frontier at which no non-native can ever truly arrive — but that hasn’t stopped freedom seekers from trying. “You don’t hear about a lot of Californians yearning to ride to New England,” says Clickenger. “I think it’s a ‘Go West, young woman’ thing.” But any man or woman who buys into the motorcycle lifestyle because they see a biker as someone who is free may be disappointed when $10,000 doesn’t prompt an immediate personal transformation.
Six years after her vision, Clickenger finally quit her job to dedicate herself fully to adventure riding, and it took three years after that before she was ready for her dream trip: a solo ride from Connecticut to Argentina. “When women start riding they just become intensely passionate about it,” says Queena Deschene, a staff rider on the Sisters‘ Centennial Ride. “There’s this resolve to continue.”
According to Grace and Grit, “Gypsy Tour” was a term coined in the early 20th century to describe events where attendees camp overnight and ride together. “The camaraderie gained by telling tales of their adventures around campfires was, and remains, a key ingredient of these events,” the book explains. For today’s women, that might be a Lita’s meet-up, a Facebook support group, or a conversation over breakfast at the annual Motor Maids’ convention. Often, it’s in the silence of riding together while not saying anything at all.
“There’s something very special to me riding with other women. That’s why I created the Sisters’ ride,” says Clickenger. “It’s important to look toward the past to see our future.”