A Safer Ride, Fashionably.

As I write this, it is just after 4 PM. The sun is long gone, the sunset is slipping away right behind it, and it is DARK. Dozens, hundreds of little red and yellow lights zip by, crisscross, waver at intersections: bikers. A few cars pass by here and there, driving carefully: bikers rule here in Uppsala.

Twenty-four percent of Uppsala residents bike to work or school. (1) Perhaps this is a Swedish attitude toward pollution and eco-friendly living, or maybe it’s that the (beautifully-maintained and on-time) bus can cost up to six dollars per trip, even if it’s just out to Ikea.

Thousands of bicycles at Uppsala Central Station. From Swedish Wikipedia.

There are also a ton of agents in place to ensure continued bike usage: extensive bike paths, air pump stations and bike racks everywhere, nice flat landscapes. And there is abundant equipment available to facilitate riding in all manner of outfits. Everyone has chainguards and many ladies’ bikes come with skirt guards (including my second-hand Crescent). Those who wear heels become masters of the elegant dismount.

But almost no one wears a helmet. I’m sure that there’s a semi-false sense of security, with separate, well-marked bike paths and a driving population that probably are bikers as well–or at least know to look for them.

Eddy Merckx, cycling's biggest hero (and babe), wearing his choice of headgear at the 1971 Tour de France. From cyclingnews.com.

Boston hipsters with fixed-gears pine for the 1970s in race caps with the tiny brim, modern Tour de France guys seek out the newest aerodynamic model, and bike trick-obsessed teens seem to prefer those heavy-duty rounded types.

Helmets for 2005 Tour de France. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP.

What does a sleek Stockholmer wear to protect the good stuff? Nothing, probably, although from a personal, unofficial study they seem to be more popular there than here in our sleepy town, as the number of late-to-work cyclists and clueless tourists from lands without bike paths gazing at the Riksdag escalate in tandem.

There are many reasons for not wearing a helmet, including the more straightforward issues of morphology and more complex psychological reasoning. (2) “Style” falls into the latter category when a cyclist is deciding which model and brand to choose. Since there are so many helmet models available, “style” might also fall into the former as well, due to created issues of morphology–i.e. topknots and meticulously straightened or combed hair. Other aesthetic and comfort issues surrounding helmet use can be described as, “It’s hot“, “Annoying” or “Uncomfortable“. (3) In colder climes, not being able to fit a warm enough hat under a traditional helmet has been cited as well. (4)

With that in mind, there was a lot of buzz this summer around the Hövding: “the invisible helmet”.

The Hövding inflated. Modern, no? From Hövding website.

Most of the photographs were of the equipment inflated, and in early summer my Swedish was too limited to understand much past cognates like “modern. So it wasn’t until I checked out the website that I understood that this is an airbag for cyclists. I can’t think of a more frustrating thing to wear, thinking of the embarrassing halting stops that I’ve experienced while trying to readjust a pencil skirt mid-ride on my back-pedal-brake single-speed…how sensitive is this thing? But at least it does look cool, even when inflated.

In addition to somewhat reassuring crash tests, the website features echoes of fashion photography, with outfits and hair styled to appeal and conceal:

Safety chic. From Hövding website.

There are many functional parts of this apparatus, important clips and snaps that turn the thing on and off, even a little “black box”; these are all housed in the foundation piece, the collar. This is plain black, but if minimalism is not your thing, the company also offers a purely decorative shell to snap on for style. From their website:

“The shell surrounds the collar. The most important function of the shell is to enable you to change the look of your Hövding – every day if you feel like it. The shell is removable and attaches to the collar with zips. It’s easy to change the shell to match your outfit, to suit the season or to wash it. The shell’s appearance can be varied in a virtually endless number of designs, colours, patterns and fabrics, turning Hövding into a fashion accessory. At the moment there are two different shell designs to choose from but we will be launching new collections all the time.” (5)

The FAQ section suggests adding your own “badges, etc” to their shell (the collar will not inflate with DIY shells, apparently), and offering styling tips to ensure that your scarf doesn’t strangle you as the airbag inflates in an accident. In light of this, the styling in the website’s photographs become part safety manual, acknowledging further interest in personal style proclivities.

The problem with helmets appears two-fold: they ruin one’s hairstyle (or hinder one’s hairdo-creativity) and don’t allow for adequate personalization.

The Hövding’s designers Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin did a survey when researching the future of the helmet: “When we asked people what they’d ideally like the bicycle helmet of tomorrow to look like, we got responses like these: “Something small that you can fold up and put in your pocket. Something that lets you change what it looks like, like you can with mobile phone skins or wigs. Invisible. The instant we heard the word invisible, we realized that was what the world was waiting for. An invisible bicycle helmet. That wouldn’t ruin your hair.” (6)

Although helmets can be found in many shapes and styles today, it is rare that they are associated with fashion the way the Hövding seeks to be, and safety gear in general is not built to be personalized, chic and subtle, but instead overt, practical, and uniform. (7)

Swedish brand J. Lindeberg has taken up this subversion of safety gear with their flannel cycling suit. This two-button suit looks like many of their other suits, but features secret mesh lining for body temperature regulation, reflective strips revealed by turning up cuffs and collar, and the option to button back the front flaps so they don’t whip around as you pedal to get through that yellow light. No reflective crossing-guard vests or pant-leg-cinchers for these hip city-dwellers!

Back view of suit. When folded down, the cuffs and collar look like any other suit and belie their safety-concern lining. From J.Lindeberg website.

Each of these pieces seeks to create greater access to cyclists’ comfort and safety–but secretly. Taking a cue from study subjects, the Hövding even has the word “invisible” in its tagline.  There is effort here to mask the practical, responsible decisions with a frivolous slipcover or a fashionable form. Finnoff et al. concluded that in 2001, “The prevalence of bicycle helmet use remains low despite research indicating the high level of head injury risk when bicycling without a helmet and the significant protection afforded by bicycle helmets.” (8) Can a fashionable–or invisible–exterior help raise the use of head-safety gear by “solving” the problems cited by their subjects and creating want (fashion) on top of need (safety)?

Or perhaps, despite their sleek campaigns and designer names, these items will be relegated in public consciousness to the less desirable “equipment” category? Hövding put on a runway show in one of Stockholm’s most highly-trafficked squares on November 10–with appropriately outrageous, voluminous hairstyles and a top hat to prove their point. But the event was to announce the placement of the airbag in Designtorget stores, known for their clever, practical interior design products. A fortuitous partnership, to be sure, but an interesting choice of paths. (9)

What do you think? Does fashion have the ability to make us safety-conscious? Leave your comments below!

 

 

(1) http://www.dn.se/nyheter/sverige/cykel-till-arbetet-tilltalar-allt-fler

(2) David Bryson discusses the body and its relation to clothing that we find “unwearable”, especially as regards “smart clothing” or “wearable technology”. His pre-Hövding research suggests that hard-shelled helmets are best, although he cites Nolén’s findings that only 14% of Swedish adults wore a helmet in 2002. He suggests, “Safety equipment might be ‘unwearable’ but anatomical [sic] designed to reduce injuries” and therefore necessary despite psychological qualms. (33-34)

(3) Finnoff et al., 5

(4) http://www.designtoimprovelife.dk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=633. This website quotes the designers’ poll of

(5) http://www.hovding.com/en/how

(6) http://www.designtoimprovelife.dk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=633

(7) Consider, however, the pop-culture co-opting of the bright orange hunters’ caps by the hipster crowd, traditional safety garments chosen by this group specifically for their awkward conspicuousness. Also, for a wider discussion of fashion’s intersection with technology/equipment, see Seymour, helmets pp.98-99, 136, 164; bike safety gear, 193. These items all assume an interest in obvious use of technology/equipment.

(8) Finnoff et al., 1

(9) It’s also got the support of Oprah’s blog, citing the “cyclist’s dream” of “no more helmet head”. Although it wasn’t chosen by the woman herself (probably not a cyclist?), “The ‘O’ Factor” is known to create buzz–and massive sales.

 

Works Cited/Further Reading:

Bryson, David. “Unwearables” AI & Society 22 (2007): 25-35.

Finnoff, Jonathan, et al. “Barriers to bicycle helmet use” Pediatrics 108 (2001): e4.

Nolén, S., et al. “Bicycle helmet use in Sweden during the 1990s and in the future” Health Promotion International 20 (2005): 33-40.

Seymour, Sabine. Fashionable technology: the intersection of design, fashion, science and technology. Wien: Springer-Verlag, 2008.

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4 Comments

  • Ariel December 01, 2011 01.09 pm

    Such a great article! Every time I get on bike I struggle with the helmet decision. I think it is about keeping a sense of dignity when riding. Which brings up the question, why does a helmet decrease dignity? Perhaps some of the reasons are uncomfortable to discuss. To be honest, I really like the Hövding, and if I lived in Sweden I would probably invest in one.

     
  • Katie December 01, 2011 04.41 pm

    Fascinating! I agree that helmets are ugly, trap sweat, ruin hair, etc. I still wear one, though. (That airbag helmet = super cool, although I’m not sure I believe it works.)
    Also, re: reasons for not wearing a helmet, I’ve also heard this study cited:

    http://www.bhsi.org/walkerstudy.htm

    which says that cars leave cyclists more room if they are not wearing a helmet, so on the whole… it might be safer to not wear one? Not sure if I believe it or not, but it’s one theory.

     
  • Pauline December 04, 2011 11.26 pm

    This has been a long focus of discussion here in Brisbane, Australia. Although they have been made compulsory for more than 20 years, many members of society still do not use helmets. The issues raised here are similar to what you have mentioned above. The ‘helmet head’ hair, the unfashionable helmets and the heat from wearing one. The heat is truely an issue here with summer being in the mid thirties.

    Since the introduction of compulsory helmets it appears there has been a dramatic reduction of cyclists, especially those who were riders before the new rule. The younger generation not so much affected. However, compared to Sweden, we are a very hilly city and that may also contribute but in my mind I do believe it is still the compulsory introduction of helmets that has reduced cycling in my city. If they were more attractive (how I do not know) it may change attitudes. But again with more cars on the road I guess safety must be paramount.

    Interesting story you have written- safety versus fashion.

     
  • Arianna December 05, 2011 04.16 am

    Thanks so much for your great comments! There are all sorts of nuances to this story, as you three mentioned.

    How disappointing–but perhaps unsurprising?–that compulsory helmets could decrease the number of riders! I would expect the same would happen here to an extent. I don’t know if I would consider a helmet “clothing”, per se, but what an interesting debate for another post: in what ways are clothing/adornment legally necessary, or when do they become so?

    What I didn’t mention here (as it is obvious from the website) is the serious expense involved in investing in one of these–and like car airbags, you can only use it once. Because this is a totally new product, the expense is something to talk about when the trend has caught on (or not). But for now the democratic option is still the plastic-and-styrofoam option.

     

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