Friday, July 22, 2011

The value of cycle chic

The concept of "cycle chic" has been controversial almost from the moment it started. Libby Maxim, "Biker Chick" of West Chester, Pennsylvania, totally missed the point and hated it. So did Kati Nolfi in Bitch Magazine.

Today, bikonomist Elly Blue added a new twist to the debate when she tweeted, "I'm more & more convinced that PR/branding campaigns to make cycling look chic & attractive do more harm than good. Watching bicycling get tangled up w/gentrification & race in PDX is what's convincing me. It shouldn't be exclusive."

Blue's point is much better than Maxim's or Nolfi's, but it'll have to wait because I want to deal with those first. The most important thing here is to get ourselves grounded again in our goals. I want to get people out of their cars, for the reasons stated above. That means that I only care about cycle chic to the extent that it gets people to choose not to drive as a habit, or to drive less, or not to buy a car (or to sell one they have), or not to fund car infrastructure (or to fund bike, transit and pedestrian infrastructure).

It's also important to point out that blogs like Copenhagen Cycle Chic and its imitators (Massapequa Cycle Chic, perhaps, someday) are not primarily sending aspirational messages. They're aimed at people who already consider themselves to be chic, and the message is, "You can be just as chic as you are ... on a bike!"

Some of the target audience may drive already. Some may be young adults who've been getting the message their whole lives that Real Grownups Drive Cars, and they're getting to the age where they may become Real Grownups. They're also constantly bombarded with ads that say, "you can be just as chic ... in this car!"

Many of them are also familiar with bike marketing and peer pressure that says that Real Cyclists wear shiny spandex and bike jerseys and those weird shoes. Maybe they think that's attractive, maybe not, but they don't identify. It's not them. If they manage to envision themselves as cyclists, it's looking uncomfortable and out of place in clothes that are tight in the wrong places.

The main content of the Cycle Chic blogs is candid shots of people on the street. Originally it was almost entirely women in skirts and high-heeled shoes, but they've branched out a bit. These people aren't dressed up to sell bicycles or cycling, they're dressed up to be attractive, and the bicycle is either an accessory or simply a way to move their attractive selves around town. They primarily send the value message: Look at these ordinary chic people. They're riding bikes, but they're clearly still getting laid. You're a chic person just like them. You can continue your chic lifestyle without a car.

BicyclesOnly has done the same thing with New Yorkers from all walks of life, including bike commuters (like this guy), families going to school, shoppers, women and people riding in the snow, with the stated goal of debunking the stereotype of cyclists as "fringe weirdo daredevils."

That's what Libby Maxim and Kati Nolfi get wrong. The people who want to dress like Katy Perry and Russell Brand are already doing that. Women who want to wear blue minidresses will do it whether they're on a bike or not, no matter how much Maxim and Nolfi scold them about the impracticality. If they don't ride a bike in their minidress, they might drive a car. Which would you rather see them doing?

My apologies to anyone who came here wanting to see pictures of women in skirts and heels or minidresses, or Russell Brand. Just follow the links.


Libby Maxim said...

dear capntransit person,

you missed my point, for us ladies of the 60s who helped launch many of the freedoms you ladies now enjoy, seeing a short skirt and heels as somehow the only way to look attractive makes me sad, when i was in school, the only outfits we could wear were skirts or dresses, when blue jeans were invented for women,(had to buy them in Army and Navy stores) we thought, holy cow, we can actually wear pants, the first time i wore pants in university was 1969, we rejoiced, no longer did i arrive to class with frost bite on my knees

so seeing you ladies parading around further promoting one way to look good or to have chic, pretty sad in my book,

who decided what is chic and what is not and WHO CARES, when chic allows women to wear clothes that are practical, then i will support chic, i dont see men biking in tight short shorts, they know better

Cap'n Transit said...

No, I get it, Libby, I really do.

I just don't think that urbanism, pollution control, harm reduction and resource efficiency should be held hostage to a battle that was won over forty years ago, while the fight for women's liberation has moved on to other theaters of war.

Malenfant said...

I'm with you, Cap'n Transit.

I am assuming that Libby Maxim is referring to wearing skirts and high heels in general, not just on bicycles.

Before "cycle chic," my roommate used to drive two miles to work and back because she really thought she would have to shower and change at work otherwise. Chic encouraged her to get comfortable riding a bike wearing her work clothes.

I believe women are capable of making intelligent decisions that are not based on getting some dude to gawk at her. In my line of work I am required to wear professional clothing, which often includes skirts, heels, stockings, and the like. I also enjoy dressing up, and my boyfriend and I are frequently spotted on our bikes dressed to the nines for a night out. I don't care to bring my workout tennies and sweat pants into the restaurant with me! Am I supposed to feel bad for wearing the dress, or just biking in it?

I ride my bike in yoga pants, jeans, steel-toed Carolinas, dresses, high heels, crusty old carharts covered in patches, mini-skirts, or really anything that I plan to still be wearing when I am done. I dress how I want regardless of my form of transportation. So in my mind, I AM dressing for comfort and practicality when on my bike- the comfort of not having to carry around a duffel bag of wrinkled clothes, the practicality of not having to change my clothes in a bathroom stall at work, the comfort of not showing up at the theater in spandex and tennis shoes, and the comfort of knowing that I can just jump on my bike and go whenever the urge hits me. The energy spent telling me what I should wear on a bike would be better spent fighting against the war on women's health.

Good gravy, sorry that was so long.

Malenfant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elliott @ Austin on Two Wheels said...

This is what happens when a niche movement starts becoming mainstream. Some folks that are already part of the movement get upset when mainstream norms start creeping in because part of the reason they joined the niche was to get away from these norms.

If you want cycling to become a legitimate option for the mainstream, you have to appeal to them on their terms. Until cycle chic, being a cyclist was promoted either as a testosterone filled urban warrior or a sanctimonious eco-nerd. Most people need to image themselves doing the thing you want them to do before they will even consider it. Also, mainstream markets do not want to be different; they want to be part of something lots of other people are doing. Looking attractive on a bike goes a lot further towards that then trying to make them adapt to a sub-culture niche.

Colville-Andersen said...

what you see on the Copenhagen version of Cycle Chic - where it all started - are just regular Copenhageners getting around by bicycle.

As anyone who has been to Copenhagen can attest, the city's fashion bar is raised high. The fashion average is certainly greater than most other cities.

It is rather ironic that the American perception of the blog(s) (and it is only Americans - read into that what you will) is that of some kind of elite 'haute glamour' when all we're doing is shooting from the hip, photographing the citizens of this city.

The value of Cycle Chic is that we have mainstreamed the bicycle again. The bicycle didn't exist in the public conscience back in 2006. Just read the press mentions post on the blog to see the development. Now it's all about the bike. Read the testimonials on the blog, too, to see the influence.

If some 'avid cyclists' have a problem with cycle chic, it doesn't bother us much. It's not about them anymore. It's about getting people to ride, using the same methods that applied back in Bicycle Culture 1.0 between the 1880's and the 1940's.

Chris said...

I think it is a mistake to see cycling as the exclusive domain of any one part of society. Please don't jump on me for this, but it's one of my biggest problems with "hipster culture" to the extent that it exists - I always got the vibe from them that you need to be a certain level of cool to ride a bike, which is, obviously, completely ridiculous. If you love bikes, you should want everyone to ride them; you shouldn't love bikes because you think it makes you cooler than the next person - I mean, whatever reason you love bikes is fine with me, I just think that they shouldn't be used as a symbol of social status, for the reason that it alienates people who would otherwise be riding.
Myself, for instance, I have a fabulous folding bike. I can take it on the train, I can put it in my closet, and I never have to leave it outside in the winter. Now *that's* what I call cycle chic.

Jame said...

I like cycle chic, with all of it's fashion blogger pretentiousness. It made me feel like I didn't need to get special spandex biking clothes to be a biker.

And after years on the fence, I am finally taking the plunge....and becoming someone who bikes in regular gear soon enough.

I think the message for cycling has been about getting special gear, shoes, peddles, gloves, pants, underwear etc...making it cost prohibitive and elitist.

Pitching biking as something for fashionable people opens the door for k=biking as something normal people do.