Mess Media

monitors, analyzes and corrects media reporting errors and bias concerning messengers and couriers.

Messenger Institute
 for Media Accuracy




Messengers Style – Introduction

By Valerie Steele
Chief Curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, NY

Introduction to the photograpgy book "Messengers Syle" by  Philippe Bialobos, Assouline 2000

I was talking with my friend James Ellis of Cockcroach Couriers (“We step on it”) in order to get the inside story on why messengers are so stylish. As a fashion historian, I know that in the past, fashion was hierarchical, trickling down from the elite to the masses. Ever since the 1960s, however, fashion influences have often come up from the street. Today bicycle messengers have created one particular kind of street style with a tremendous influence on fashion. I wanted to know why.

“A lot of people want to be messengers,” James says. “It’s about freedom. The boss is not on your back.” Experts on street style, such as Ted Polhemus, agree that subcultural identity is symbolized by street style, which conveys a desirable aura of authenticity. When high fashion draws on street style, it’s not only because there is something special about the clothes. It is the lifestyle and attitude associated with subcultural clothing styles which attracts attention. Sometimes straight people want to live the life. For example, James says he knows of a lawyer, a former district attorney, who gave it up to become a bike messenger. More often, civilians simply acquire elements of the look.

According to James, “You have to be comfortable…and stylish. You wear basically the same thing every day, so it becomes your trademark.. You have to find your own style.” Looking at the pictures in this book, it is clear that some messengers favor aerodynamic athletic style, while others look like ninjas. There is punk style and paramilitary style, Afrocentric style and grunge style. All have had an impact on designer fashion. But central to messenger style is the need for comfortable clothes that work.

Form follows function. A good shirt for example should be made of material that breathes and dies quickly. Otherwise, with all that physical exercise, you’ll get sweaty and then chilled. As active sportswear has become increasingly versatile with new high-tech fabrics, it has increasingly influenced fashion. Within the messenger subculture, it is possible to wear a range of sportswear brands, although a brand like Bellwether or Pearlizumi is regarded as looking especially profession. “It’s the equivalent to a B-boy wearing Fubu,” says James. “This is our DKNY.”

Like your clothes, “your bike reflects you as a person. You gotta have a good bike. That’s our Lexus, our Cherokee.” As these references to popular culture indicate, within a street style like the messenger look, there are distinctions of quality, which are based partly on performance and partly on cultural associations. More importantly, there is a belief that style should reflect personal identity, including ethnic identity (a B-boy wearing Fubu) and personal aspirations (our Lexus, our Cherokee). Within modern culture as a whole, street style is often valued over designer fashion, because the former is perceived as being more authentic, closer to an individual’s real identity.

Some messengers gravitate toward clothes that look aerodynamic. It’s not just a question of functional material and close-fitting styles that move well. For every guy in skin-tight bicycle shorts, there’s someone else in camouflage pants, jeans or other hard-wearing trousers – with one leg rolled up, so it’s doesn’t touch an oily crank. You seldom see pants that are full below the knee, because excess fabric can catch in the gears [or chain]. Although civilians may not need to pay attention to such practical details, they often choose to adopt the look. Thus, in certain circles it is fashionable to roll up one trouser leg. In addition, certain design features, like stripes also symbolize speed and dynamism. James compares it to looking like Voltran.

The complete robotic super hero look would be appropriately accessorized, from helmet to goggles and gloves – everything but the cyborg body parts. Many designers have also been attracted to this futuristic look. Jean Paul Gautier has created cyber-punk fashions. At the couture house of Givenchy, Alexander McQueen has designed fashions that draw on computer imagery. Like the individual messengers, these designers are strongly influenced by certain aspects of popular culture, such as Japanese animation. Other messengers, like other designers, prefer a funkier style. Messengers wear bandanas and baseball caps, Mohawks and dreadlocks. Some wear work boots or special bike shoes with stiff soles, but the majority of messengers (like the majority of young people throughout society) opt for regular sneakers – the shoes that symbolize and facilitate speed, athleticism and competition.

This brings us to the purpose of the job – delivering messages and packages. In most cities, it is a dangerous job to be a messenger. If the motorists don’t get you, there are the thieves. It is necessary to be prepared. Real messengers have essential equipment to deal with this need, but civilians can also identify. The messenger bag has become a popular fashion item with civilians because it is easy to carry and holds a lot of stuff. Today almost everyone is an urban nomad, so it’s not surprising that we’ve discovered the advantages of a bag that’s waterproof, tear resistant, and distributes the weight ergonomically. A bright yellow or red bag has the additional advantage of being highly visible to motorists.

There is another big reason messengers are trendsetters. Today sportswear is the single most important influence on contemporary clothing, and the hard body has become the ultimate fashion accessory. Working as bike messenger tends to give you a great body. All day long, you’re engaged in both aerobic exercise (pedaling) and weight lifting (carrying the bicycle chains). Other people go to the gym after work. Messengers work out at work. As a result, not only do they have hard bodies, but their profession virtually requires they wear trendsetting clothes that show off just how fit they are.

Strong, brave, fast and free. No wonder we admire messengers and their style.




Send comments or suggestions, to:



Bike messenger emergency fund