Wheels Of Fashion

Leah Binkovitz Daniel London surveys the short-lived “bicycle craze” of the late 19th century:

From decorated chain-guards to novelty cycling bells to handle-bar revolvers, consumers spent more than $200 million on bicycle sundries in 1896 alone, as opposed to only $300 million on the bicycles themselves that same year. Nowhere did the consumer culture surrounding the bicycle manifest itself more than in the area of attire. By sporting the latest styles, wheelmen and women sought to project a public image of taste and wealth for their peers to appreciate.

She considers the corresponding trends today:

Bicycling today is often depicted and perceived as a marker of identity: It sanctions its owner’s hip credentials and attitude in the same way that the Victorian cycle did dish_bicyclesuitgentility and respectability. We see it in advertising, as in Jack Kane custom race bicycles’ “It’s more authentic to who I am.” We see it in articles and websites on bicycle fashion. We see it in the perceptions of some non-cyclists, who see riders as “entitled,” out-of-touch hipsters.

The danger here is that history may be repeating itself and the practical benefits of the bicycle are once again hostage to the whims of fashion. Will people still lobby for bicycle lanes when they are no longer seen as marker of progressiveness? Will the health and environmental benefits of riding a bicycle be forgotten when it is no longer championed by the stylish and well off? It happened before, and it may happen again, if the bicycle love surrounding us becomes merely a craze. This time, the wheel should be here to stay. No matter the outfit. No matter the accessory.

(Image: “The Bicycle Suit”, cartoon from Punch, 1895, via Wikimedia Commons)