The Velodrome: A Dying Luxury?


Last week I visited the Vienna Velodrome to take some photographs, and the experience was riveting. I have watched a few bicycle road races in the U.S. and in Europe, but they hardly prepared me for this magical place.

A velodrome is a stadium-like arena, where cyclists go round and round a wooden track at incredible speeds. Both professionals (members of a team) and amateurs can ride on the track. They need only to purchase a seasonal permit and to use a track bike—which can be rented at the velodrome if a cyclist does not have their own. A track bike differs from an ordinary road bike in the geometry of its construction and in the fact that it is “fixed gear.” The cyclist cannot coast and must pedal continuously in order to keep the bike in motion. As a sport, track cycling is extremely strenuous. As a viewing experience, its unique aesthetics are mesmerising.

Minox_Neopan1600_014sm As I watched the bicycles fly past me, my eyes soon grew accustomed to the speed and I began to notice the beauty of the cyclists’ movements and postures. In road races, it is all about the destination, but at the track it is about repetition. And this repetition—the literal closing of a circle time and time again—creates the rhythm and grace of a choreographed dance. It is ballet, performed at 30 km/h. And it made me long to be one of the cyclists... despite that small hindrance of being athletically challenged.

With the popularity of cycling on the rise—and the urban “fixed gear” trend in particular—one might think that the romance of the velodrome should be attracting more followers than ever. But in fact the velodromes are dying. The enormous amount of endurance and self-discipline required to train to race on the track deters the urban fixed-gear enthusiasts, who prefer riding on the streets and participating in free-style “alley-cat” races. Underused, the velodrome is now perceived as an exotic indulgence—and many can no longer afford to stay operational.


This, of course, raises the larger question of what determines whether a sport is perceived as “everyman’s pastime” versus a “luxury”: So much depends of the context of the time and place. Has the velodrome’s time run out, or will it persevere? I sincerely hope the latter.

[Images taken by the author and available on flickr via Colden Studios. Top two images: Cyclists practicing. Bottom image: Rental track bikes hanging in velodrome locker.]

Are Cell Phones The New Glamorous Accessory?

Glamorous woman cell phone cigarette sunglassesRandall's post below, “If Someone Glamorous Walked By, Would You Notice?” is about the things you miss when you’re on your cell phone. But the title made me wonder what the person walking by might look like. 

When I searched Google images for “glamorous woman” and “walking,” I discovered a different connection between cell phones and glamour. The top three results were this stock photo, in which the woman is wearing sunglasses, the most classic glamorous accessory, while talking on a cell phone. (She’s also pushing a baby carriage, which may or may not be glamorous.)

Sunglasses, cigarettes, veils, hats, and fans are all classically glamorous accessories. All simultaneously attract attention and create distance. The audience gets an intriguing glimpse of the glamorous person, not a full view.

On a cell phone, the person is similarly present and distant, engaged with someone the viewer can neither see nor hear.  The phone adds an aural dimension to the visual mystery of  sunglasses. At the same time, like wearing jewelry or expensive clothes, talking on the phone signals status: Here is a person who is socially connected, who has friends, who is busy or important.

With cigarettes, veils, hats, and fans all more or less out of fashion, has the cell phone joined sunglasses as a glamorous essential?

["Beauty Talks" image courtesy of Piero Paravidino, Flickr user Sensitive2Light, and used with permission.]

Transformations: Perfume, Flowers, Butterflies, And Bugs

Flora-gucci-ad Gucci has designed a highly effective ad campaign for its Flora perfume that revolves around fields of flowers, diaphanous floral print dresses, and the sultry beauty of model Abbey Lee Kershaw. In the print ads Kershaw is photographed in dresses that seem to magically transform into butterfly wings. The Chris Cunningham video shown below was shot in Latvia in a seemingly endless sea of flowers. Kershaw is depicted like the Roman goddess Flora, who with waves of her arms causes the flowers to bow to her (an effect that appears to use a mobile wind machine). At the end the images are manipulated so that Kershaw and her dress seem about to take flight.

Primavera-Flora If you have seen Botticelli’s Primavera, the Gucci ads may remind you of his image of Flora, who holds spring flowers in the folds of her sheer floral dress. These images all promise that winter’s reign will end, that spring will transform the world, and that once again we will enjoy the scent of blossoming flowers.

The butterfly-like shape of the billowing dress in the Gucci ads reminds us of another transformation, that of caterpillar to butterfly. Most butterflies are colorful, beautiful creatures. How tempting it becomes to try a perfume that suggests it can transform you into a creature as beautiful as spring, flowers, butterflies, or a youthful goddess.

Most people do not find butterflies attractive in their caterpillar stage. The same is true of bugs. While we might be delighted to have a butterfly land on us, we may shudder if we notice a caterpillar or a bug crawling on us.

Contemplation-cicada That’s one reason this photo by John Bonath, titled “Contemplation on a Cicada,” is so arresting. The beautiful blond model appears to be naked, photographed in a studio, and deep in thought as cicadas crawl on her hair, face, and body. This image is used on a card advertising an upcoming show of Bonath’s work at The Camera Obscura Gallery in Denver. He specializes in surreal digital images, so it is difficult to know what is “real” in this image. Cicadas don’t bite or sting humans, but I can’t image them arranging themselves in such orderly fashion.

When they molt cicadas leave behind ghosts of themselves in the form of hard shells whose claws cling to trees, bushes, and posts. (Here is a time-lapse image of a cicada molting.) We tend to associate bugs with disease and decay, and in nature various bugs and their larvae help decompose dead animals. That is a transformation that few of us enjoy contemplating, yet nature’s transformations are not always pretty. Once while leading an art class on an excursion to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, my wife came upon a group of Monarch butterflies feasting on smelly poo in a tossed-away baby diaper.

Part of the cleverness of the Gucci perfume ads is how well they combine positive images of transformation. In contrast, a brilliant aspect of the opening of David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet was its fluid movement from images of an idyllic small town to an man dying while watering his lawn, and then to bugs in the soil beneath the lawn. This sequence prepares us to see the film reveal part of the decadent underworld of the town. In both cases images are used to help us focus on transformations, either toward renewal or toward decay and decadence.

If Someone Glamorous Walked By, Would You Notice?

Darth-vader-japn If you were on your cell phone, probably not. In Psychology Today Ira Hyman, Jr. reported that 75% of people walking on a path while talking on their cell phone didn’t notice someone in a clown suit ride near them on a unicycle. You might even have missed this image of Darth Vader interacting with Japanese school girls. Hyman discusses how using a cell phone absorbs our attention, just as it did for the two commercial airline pilots that flew past their airport.

Surprised to learn that while on a cell phone he had walked past one of his good friends without seeing him, Jim Nelson, editor-in-chief at GQ, wrote an editorial on what he calls “inattentional blindness.” Mentioning Hyman’s findings, Nelson writes that, “Cell phone conversations demand a different neurological engagement, causing us to create mental imagery that drowns out “the processing of real images.”

Perceiving glamour requires that we process images, because glamour is partly an act of projection. Only after some image has successfully captured our attention is it possible for us to project onto that image the aura of glamour. This can happen instantly if the image sparks our desire to be like someone, to own an article of clothing, to drive that car, and so on. We sometimes imagine our life being transformed if only this fantasy were true. Images that we find glamorous have generally been calculated to trigger such projections by showing their subjects to best advantage, without revealing messy aspects like cost, effort, and flaws.

I use a cell phone and an iPod Touch, and I find both to be great tools. But like Nelson I find it sobering to realize that the mental processes involved in using my techno gadgets may sometimes drown out my mental processing of images in the world around me.

[“Of Schoolgirls and Vader” by Flickr user karanj . Used under the Flickr Creative Commons license.]

Glamorous Materials: Satin, Lacquer, Diamonds, Fur, Feathers, And...Cellophane

Carole Lombard George Hurrell cellophane To the contemporary eye, this George Hurell photo of Carole Lombard (part of an enormous auction this Friday and Saturday) seems strange. She looks beautiful, and the lighting and pose are glamorous. But what’s with the plastic sheeting? Is that a shower curtain to her left?

Behold the glamour of cellophane. Like diamonds or crystal, cellophane has a sparkling, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t quality. Although transparent, when crinkled and lit correctly it creates a teasing mystery. In Glamour: A History, Stephen Gundle likens cellophane to “striptease, which achieved its effect by constantly making the unveiled body more remote.”Wrapped in cellophane, “products were available but untouchable and therefore inaccessible.”

In Hurrell’s photo, the shimmering plastic catches the light, creating a cool, translucent contrast to the soft opacity of Lombard’s feathered dress and the warmth of her skin. If you don’t associate plastic with cheapness, cellophane makes perfect sense as a glamorous material. Like glamour itself, it is alluringly artificial.In the 1920s and ’30s, cellophane’s appeal went beyond these intrinsic aesthetic properties. This new material epitomized high-tech modernity: “You’re the purple light of a summer night in Spain / You’re the National Gallery / You’re Garbo’s salary / You’re cellophane!” sang Cole Porter in "You're the Top!"

Judith Brown in Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form, which I reviewed along with the Gundle book here, devotes an entire chapter to cellophane. She is interested, she writes, in the material as “pure surface...a protective veneer from dusty reality.” And she notes its ubiquity in the popular culture of the 1920s and ’30s:

Joan Crawford Dancing Lady negative cellophane

Cellophane tablecloths glitter in an upscale nightclub in the Astaire-Rogers blockbuster Swing Time (1936); cellophane also appears in an earlier Joan Crawford film, Dancing Lady (1933), in the transparent swags at the back of a dance set, and again in the Broadway musical staged within the film. in this film, the cellophane also appears in costume form: a group of black-attired old women, complete with bonnets, lace collars, wire glasses, and bent-over backs make their way into a futuristic beauty parlor and emerge as modern bombshells, perfectly artificial with cellophane outfits and what might be plastic hair. Cellophane similarly appears in a swanky Chinese nightclub as the “The Girls in Cellophane” take the stage in W. C. Fields’s International House (1933). The pages of Vogue magazine also mark cellophane as haute couture, here as the “cellophane toque” that makes a “deceptively simple” garment cutting edge by newly framing the model’s face in the most artificial of head covers; and again, as an arresting sight in this newspaper photograph of an urban street. Cellophane fashion staked out a turning point: cellophane was chic and, above all, now.

This Hurrell photo of Joan Crawford, whose negative is in the auction, is from Dancing Lady. Although Crawford is not literally wearing cellophane, her dress has a similar sparkling, translucent quality. It makes her look like a star.

[Photographs courtesy of Profiles in History.] 

Seeing Yourself From A Thin Perspective

Sunday-ride My wife and I moved from the Phoenix area to Fort Collins, Colorado about four years ago. A recent Gallup Poll study reported that Fort Collins and the neighboring city of Loveland have the lowest level of obesity in the country (16%). Boulder, Colorado was number two at 16.6%. The study reported that most people in these cities practiced good health habits.

Any American city of 100,000 or more will have some people who are obese and some who are underweight. But I find living in a city where obesity is relatively uncommon to be quite a different experience. During a recent trip to Phoenix and Tucson, I saw more obese people in four days than I would likely see in six months in Fort Collins. (And Arizona cities are not among the most obese.) In a large book store in Tucson, almost half the employees struck me as obese or nearly so. In contrast, I couldn’t ever remember seeing obese employees in retail stores in Fort Collins. At a restaurant in Tucson I was stunned by the obesity of the patrons at one table. Compared to what I have become used to seeing, some of them seemed grotesque. Yet there were diners at other tables who were just as obese. I have never seen a similar situation in a Fort Collins restaurant.

A recent study found that high school girls judge their weight relative to their peer group, and I think adults do the same. We assume that the people around us provide a more realistic perspective on normal weight than do tall, thin models in magazines. So if you are overweight and hang out with other overweight people, you may feel that your weight is reasonably normal. But in a city where most people are relatively fit, this feeling is hard to sustain. If you are seriously overweight and shop in downtown Fort Collins or Boulder, you will look fat compared to most people around you.

Estes-park This creates pressure to stay fit. Among our close friends, everyone does something to exercise, as well as putting some some effort into maintaining a healthy diet. Several of our friends work with personal trainers or take classes in Yoga, Pilates, or Tai Chi. All of them engage in some outdoor activities, from gardening and walking to running, bicycling, and cross-country skiing.

Does everyone in these cities work hard at fitness? Of course not. But a high percentage of them do regularly engage in physical activity. Knowing this makes it harder to make excuses for not exercising, especially when some your neighbors are amazingly fit. In my case a woman two houses down has climbed all 54 of Colorado's 14,000+ mountains. And a woman in her late sixties at the end of the block still runs marathons at 5000' elevations.

[Photo of two women on a Sunday ride in Boulder County by Let Ideas Compete. The photo of the group backpacking the Estes Park back country west of Loveland is by akeg. Both photos used under the Flickr Creative Common's license.]

The Deeper Meaning Of Glamour: Powerful Nonverbal Rhetoric

Weekly Standard Grace Kelly glamour cover  After C-SPAN reran a 1999 BookNotes interview about my first book, I received an email from a disappointed viewer. He was chagrined to hear that I was editing a website called DeepGlamour instead of writing “more serious nonfiction.” Glamour, he implied, is a trivial subject, unworthy of consideration by people who watch, much less appear on, C-SPAN.

To which I have two words of response: Barack Obama. In an era of tell-all memoirs, ubiquitous paparazzi, and reality-show exhibitionism, glamour may seem absent from Hollywood. But Obama demonstrates that its magic still exists. What a glamorous candidate he was—less a person than a persona, an idealized, self-contained figure onto whom audiences projected their own dreams, a Garbo-like “impassive receptacle of passionate hopes and impossible expectations,” in the words of Time’s Joe Klein. The campaign’s iconography employed classically glamorous themes, with its stylized portraits of the candidate gazing into the distance and its logo of a road stretching toward the horizon. Now, of course, Obama is experiencing glamour’s downside: the disillusionment that sets in when imagination meets reality. Hence James Lileks’s recent quip about another contemporary object of glamour, “The Apple tablet is the Barack Obama of technology. It’s whatever you want it to be, until you actually get it.”

As critics who denounce movies that “glamorize violence” or “glamorize smoking” understand, glamour is much more than style. It is a potent tool of persuasion, a form of nonverbal rhetoric that heightens and focuses desire, particularly the longing for transformation (an ideal self) and escape (in a new setting). Glamour is all about hope and change. It lifts us out of everyday experience and makes our desires seem attainable. Depending on the audience, that feeling may provide momentary pleasure or life-altering inspiration. Read the rest, a longish review-essay, at The Weekly Standard.

Why Do People Hate Oscar Acceptance Speeches So Much?

Oscar speech postsecret This image originally appeared on the site, a crowdsourced art project that invites people to "Take a post card or two. Tell your secret anonymously. Stamp and mail the postcard." A half million postcards have been sent in since the project began in 2004.

The humor of this particular card comes from the unshocking nature of its confession. "I'd be lying if I haven't made a version of this speech before I was 8 years old and staring into the bathroom mirror," said Kate Winslet when she won Best Actress last year. "And this would have been a shampoo bottle." In response, someone started a Facebook group called Thanks a lot Kate Winslet for stealing my oscar speech. In 2008, Dove even made a commercial about practicing your Oscar speech in the shower. "Everyone Has an Oscar Acceptance Speech," observes John Scalzi in a funny piece about temporarily having a real Oscar in his house. As the postcard says, you don't have to be in show business to have this fantasy.

The Oscar speech is a touchstone glamorous moment: You're being recognized as special in front of the whole world. (If you're a woman, you're also wearing a great dress, but that's a minor fantasy compared to the acclaim.) But, with a few exceptions, real-life Oscar speeches are disappointing. In fact, audiences tend to hate them. In a great 1999 rant Sharon Waxman called the typical speech "a waste of the rapt attention of much of the Western world."

Please! Is it too much to ask? A little humor? A little pathos? Histrionics are fine, even hubris is welcome – as long as it's different. Rod Steiger thanked the Maharishi. Fine. Vanessa Redgrave scored the "Zionist hoodlums." Whatever. Anything, anything, ANYTHING but thanking your agent.

Who can forget director James Cameron declaring, "I am the king of the world!" last year, right after requesting a moment of silence for the victims of "Titanic." Sure, we thought he was a jerk, but at least it was more interesting than listening to his co-producer Jon Landau reel off an endless list of names we'd never heard.

The problem  that the glamour of winning an Oscar is all about individual triumph--the recognition of one particular person--but social convention dictates that winners act humble and dependent. That (faux) humility destroys the glamour of the moment. Thanking your supportive family can still be glamorous, but a long list of backstage players breaks the fantasy of the autonomous star. It forces the audience to contemplate the mundane, even bureaucratic, processes behind the achievement. 

One way to preserve social convention while preserving some magic is to replace glamour--the idealized moment--with romance, a narrative of struggle and triumph. That may be just the story of getting the movie made or it may be a greater historical narrative, like the story of African Americans in Hollywood. Or, like Mo'Nique, you can go for both.

[Image originally from via Flickr user within(Reason).]

Mad Men Barbies: Glimpse Into Fantasy Worlds Or Stilted Artifacts?

Mad men barbies Barbie's been busy lately with brand extensions. Just a few weeks ago, we met Video Girl Barbie, with her tiny camera that lets girls see the world through Barbie's eyes. Yesterday, the world through Barbie's eyes got a little saucier, when Mattel announced its plans to produce four Barbie dolls based on characters from the TV show Mad Men.

These dolls aren't really designed for kids, of course - they're part of the Barbie Fashion Model Collection and will sell for $74.95 each. But it will be interesting to see if the show's entry into toyland has an effect. Will little girls start dressing their Target-bought Kens and Barbies in natty suits and tiny Betty Draper-style dresses?

In the New York Times article announcing the deal between the show and Mattel, Lionsgate president for television programming and production, Kevin Beggs, comments that Mad Men is tricky to promote, saying, "It's not 'Cougar Town' or 'Desperate Housewives,' where you get it in one line." Beggs says this to explain some of the rationale behind the partnership, which is just one more step in the show's non-traditional branding approach, which has included a line of Mad Men-inspired suits at Brooks Brothers and in-store promotion at Banana Republic.

I wonder, though, if the show's complexity makes it difficult to translate its characters into dolls. When I first saw the dolls, I recognized their characters, but focused on the ways they differ from the "real" people (from left to right in the photo, they are: Joan Holloway, Roger Sterling, Don Draper, and Betty Draper). In doll form, Roger looks a bit like Eric Ripert, Joan is a whole lot less Joan, and Don is nowhere near as handsome as Jon Hamm. To be fair, Betty looks pretty good, though her hair is a tad on the poufy side.

In her post about Video Girl Barbie, Ingrid Fetell wrote that girls enjoy playing with Barbie because they can explore glamorous fantasy worlds through the Barbie character. Adults can do the same when they buy a Mad Men suit. I wonder, though, whether the dolls can provide grownups any of the same type of satisfaction. Do they offer a glimpse into a fantasy world? Or are they just slightly stilted artifacts of that fantasy?

Innocence Versus Worldliness

As-a-fairy Virginia’s recent post contrasting the differences between “cute” and “glamorous” made several interesting comparisons. Her distinction between “innocent, ingenue” and “worldly, sophisticated” reminded me of a lyrical poem by Richard Wilbur in which an experience of innocent beauty created an ecstatic moment for him. His poem, Piazza di Spagna, Early Morning, begins:

I can't forget
How she stood at the top of that long marble stair
Amazed, and then with a sleepy pirouette
Went dancing slowly down to the fountain-quieted square;

Nothing upon her face
But some impersonal loneliness,—not then a girl
But as it were a reverie of the place,
A called-for falling glide and whirl;

The poet witnesses a girl who, amazed by the Spanish steps in Rome, comes gliding and whirling down them, seemingly innocently unaware that she somehow completes the image of the place for the poet. Wilbur continues:

As when a leaf, petal, or thin chip
Is drawn to the falls of a pool and, circling a moment above it,
Rides on over the lip—
Perfectly beautiful, perfectly ignorant of it.

To create the lovely photograph shown at the beginning of this post, the photographer Matilde dressed herself in the kind of fairy skirt that so many young girls have played in, and she danced in her bare feet. The photograph has a wonderful feeling of innocence, but it is a portrayal of innocence created by a grown woman.

Valentino-staircase If we imagine a glamorous Italian woman descending those same stairs wearing a high-fashion gown such as the one shown here by Valentino, we assume that while she was descending she would remain perfectly aware that she was presenting herself as a beautiful, sophisticated woman.

And her awareness of her image, and the value that she knows that Western culture places on such fashionable glamour, is part of what makes her appear “dangerous,” to use Virginia’s term. She seems fully aware of the worth of her beauty and perfectly willing to use the status offered by her appearance and wealth to her full advantage.

The photograph of this gown (found on a Chinese economic site) is an illusion in that it was taken during a runway show, and the model may be wearing a gown that she herself could not afford to own. So this photograph is a portrayal of glamour designed to convince women who can afford Valentino’s gowns to purchase them. Nonetheless, I imagine this model feels glamorous while wearing this gown and walking the runway.

To see this model wear this gown and descend the Spanish steps would provide an impression as unforgettable as a girl innocently dancing down them. But where the girl presented an image of innocence, the model would present an image of glamorous worldliness.

[The photograph “As A Fairy” is copyrighted by Flickr user matilde, and is used by permission.]