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FASHION : Making a Statement : Some motorcyclists are taking to helmets with a vengeance, selecting the headgear to express personal style.

February 27, 1992|AURORA MACKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My father does not understand our rituals.

Why, he asks each time I come to visit, do my mother and I always head right off to our favorite department store when we could be catching up on important things at home? The scarf of femaleness the two of us wear when we shop--even if we return home empty-handed--is lost on him.

Also baffling is my mother's penchant for sending me newspaper clippings. I, after all, am in the newspaper business. I see plenty of newspapers already. Getting more, he says, is just a waste of a good stamp.

What my father can't decipher are my mother's messages to me, contained in a private, unprinted text. Whether it's a story about a little girl's adjustment after facial burns or an article with the headline, "Bush apologizes to children for a bad word--won't say what it was," it is as though she is standing over my shoulder, whispering some comment about life in my ear.

I must admit that occasionally even I can't decode her messages.

Not long ago, she sent me a story I had missed about a 48-year-old motorcycle enthusiast in Los Angeles. Despondent over the state's 9-day-old mandatory helmet law, the man had strapped a new helmet to his head and then shot himself to death in his back yard.

The police detective handling the case had spoken with the man's wife and brother, who said that wearing a helmet made the man feel that he couldn't enjoy freedom in life. "He said it felt like he had a box on his head," the detective said.

As ridiculous a reason for committing suicide as it seemed, I couldn't laugh. My mother, I felt sure, wouldn't either. So what had prompted her to send it to me?

I thought about that man's passion for feeling the wind in his hair. And, as I drove to work in the mornings, I began paying more attention to the motorcyclists around me. How, I wondered, were they coping?

With the exception of one man, who appeared to be in his early 20s, everyone I spotted was wearing the required protective gear. But gone were the plain, functional-looking helmets of the past.

One man wore what looked like a cross between a Darth Vader mask and an Olympic ski helmet. Another sported a neon blue helmet with bright orange stripes down the sides. In front of a Simi Valley coffee shop that regularly attracts leather-jacketed groups on Harleys, I saw what appeared to be World War II Nazi helmets. And on the freeway heading into Ventura, another rider wore what looked like an inverted soup bowl.

"Ninety-five percent of the people buying them say they'd rather have their freedom. But since they have to wear them, a lot of people have decided to make a statement with them," said Jim Woods, owner of Simi Valley Honda, where helmet sales have increased about 20% since Jan. 1. "People say they want it to stick out like a sore thumb."

That desire, said Dennis Ehrp, parts manager at Barber Honda and Suzuki in Ventura, is translating into a lot more personalized helmets on the road. "They're upgrading to a helmet with better-looking graphics and with a wider choice of colors," said Ehrp, whose store also has seen increased helmet sales. "Some of the helmets have headsets inside so they can listen to an AM/FM radio. Next thing you know, they'll have CD players in them."

The inverted soup bowl, I learned, is actually called a "pudding bowl" helmet and was made popular in England during the '50s. It is gaining renewed popularity. "The ladies like them because they don't weigh so much," Ehrp said. "They're also DOT-approved."

DOT is the Department of Transportation, which requires a certain safety level for all helmets worn on the road. The idea, of course, is that the helmets must do more than just look good.

But John, a motorcyclist from Simi Valley who declined to give his last name, didn't seem concerned either with safety or meeting strict DOT standards, which might get him a $100 fine for a first-time offender. But his replica of a Kaiser Wilhelm helmet--with no visible DOT sticker--is a statement. It is his way of keeping his identity intact.

"Look, this is a helmet," he said, pointing to the 2-inch spike at the center. "They say I got to wear a helmet, and that's what I'm doing. They can't tell me what it has to look like, too."

I hope John doesn't hit a rock because I like his sense of spirit. I'd hate to see such a strong sense of identity wiped out by a pothole.

And if I know my mother, I think she'd say the same thing.

* THE PREMISE

Ventura County is teeming with the fashionable and not so fashionable. There are trend-makers and trend-breakers. There are those with style--personal and off the rack--and those making fashion statements better left unsaid. Twice a month, we'll be taking a look at fashion in Ventura County-trends, styles and ideas-and asking you what you think. If you have a fashion problem, sighting or suggestion; if you know a fashion success or a fashion victim, let us know. We want to hear from you.

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