On Style: Whose Fixed-gear Bikes?

*** In my previous entry, I focused more on using the concept of bricolage (Levi-Strauss 1966) to to discuss gender relations in the fashion of hipsters. This entry will expand on discussions of style.

When I was in Seattle, I often saw hipsters riding down the hills with their “fixies” and thought it was crazy of them … then I read about the bike messenger’s symbolic practices (Kidder 2005) and well, the hipster appropriation of fixed-gear bike riding did not seem as impressively reckless after all.

The traffic in Seattle is not comparable to that in New York City – having experienced both myself. The hipsters (at least in Seattle, for this case) already lack the liminality that the “original” users of fixed-gear bikes do – without the need to race against time and traffic to make deliveries, they do not find themselves in liminal positions due to pure necessity of making a delivery. In fact, I often see hipsters ride fixed-gear bikes leisurely on the roads of Seattle – I suspect this is also due to the fact that the city has been constructed with wide, quite disorganized roads that allow for quite a substantial amount of freedom in terms of moving a vehicle at most times of the day. Unlike Kidder’s research site, the organization of the roads in Seattle give the hipsters a lot more “freedom” to ride and it is precisely due to this freedom – that all drivers/riders share – that the hipsters lack liminality. They do not find themselves “forced into a liminal zone” (Kidder 2005:352) within which they have “freedom to maneuver anywhere their bikes can fit” (Kidder 2005:352). Of course, the organization of the roads in Seattle has less to do with the hipsters’ lack of liminality than the fact that their riding of fixed-gear bikes is not a lifestyle arising from the occupation. Kidder wrote that “working as a messenger is a requirement for entering this world” (Kidder 2005:350) – although his sociological interest is of course the cultural lifestyle of various symbolic practices and objects amongst bike messengers who have identified themselves as such even outside of work hours, it is important that he has stated (and acted on) the necessity of riding as an occupation as the first and foremost requirement for entering the social world of bike messengers.

The diffusion and defusion of bike messenger style – particularly riding fixed-gear bikes – into marketing and “hipster subculture” is both representative of the commodification of subcultural objects for profit (by mainstream stores like Urban Outfitters, for example, a go-to store to create that “hipster image” that stocks modified versions of such bikes) as well as (ironically) the hipsters’ attempt to generate style that is representative of their own social world. The homology between the bike messenger social world and that of riding their bikes loses its “first integral relation to a specific life-context” (Clarke 1976b:186) when the hipsters, the “previously unstyled … rework the already double-layered symbolic presentation … into their own group lifestyle” (Clarke 1976b:186). I found the above illustration on a blog that celebrates bike messenger subculture (http://skidanddestroy.blogspot.sg/) – although he did not produce the illustration himself, I find his sentiments behind using the illustration useful in order to theorize why original producers of subcultural style are protective over their symbols: the homological function of style as embodying a particular subculture/subgroup’s self-consciousness and solidarity when they display their style as originally and definitively orientated to their “situation” (Clarke 1976b:180). As a caveat, it is even more interesting to note that the owner of the blog is Singaporean – a long way from New York. After reading more of his posts, I realise he is a Singaporean-based teenager who has identified himself within the bike messenger symbolic practice of riding, even appropriating the argot, participating in similar “lifestyle” races and aiming to travel to New York City, the originating city of the bike messenger subculture. He has never held an occupation as a bike messenger – so what differentiates him from the hipsters he criticizes is I daresay a personal frame of reference, particularly one that addresses the risk and danger involved in riding fixed-gear bikes (Wolf argues that the “threat of death” is the “most salient distinction between the average citizen and the outlaw biker” [Kidder 2005:355]) as opposed to the more “leisured” take by the hipsters. He works towards staying as “authentic” to the bike messenger style as he can – going as far as paying homage to the original producers of the style – yet I daresay the traffic laws and regulations in Singapore pose many problems as to how far he can go with the stylistic aspects of demeanor. The “stylistic ensemble” (Clarke 1976b:181) explains as constructing a group identity is lacking in this context. What will an “authentic” bike messenger say/feel about hipsters (an “outgroup” that appropriates their style but orientating to different frames of references) riding fixed-gear bikes compared to groups of individuals who are similarly considered “outgroups” but who work towards achieving a similar frame of reference (albeit essentially lacking in similar life experiences)? Who is the real poseur? Theoretically, as we study subcultures that have appropriated the styles of other subgroups, can we view the “stylistic ensemble” as being re-worked without the same judgement from its original producers?

A fixed-gear bike available for sale from Urban Outfitters

Riding as a symbolic practice within the bike messenger social world has both form and function when we use homology to study the bricoleur’s “fit” with his “activities, self-images and focal concerns” (Clarke 1976b:186). The appropriation of fixed-gear bikes – but not of the symbolic practice of riding – by hipsters attests to the “openness” (Williams 2011:84) of subcultural style. The defusion of such style – the modification of bikes by large-scale commercialization to make them look more “trendy” as opposed to being practical and built for speed; the “acceptable elements” (Clarke 1976b:188) of “minimalism” and “alternative transportation” as being more stressed as reasons for hipsters riding fixed-gear bikes rather than the liminality and dangers of riding at breakneck speed – have moved the symbolic elements of riding away from their integral relation to the bike messenger’s specific life-context. I argue that riding fixed-gear bikes serves as more of contributing to a hipster’s self-image rather than functioning as a form of symbolic practice.

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One comment

  1. I think you’re romanticizing the differences between Seattle and NYC. Each city has its own set of dangers to say the least. Do you have any data to support your claims?

    Otherwise, an interesting entry 🙂

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