The Return of Rollerblades?

Slate's Culture Blog
June 7 2011 1:34 PM

The Return of Rollerblades?

On a recent early summer evening, I found myself strollingalong a bustling thoroughfare in downtown Manhattan, taking stock of the myriadattractive and well-heeled people with whom I shared the sidewalk. Women inworn cut-offs and gladiator sandals strode by arm-in-arm with men in cuffedjeans and brogues. Flocks of girls in ankle boots and belted chiffonmini-dresses scurried southward. Stringy boys in short-sleeve button-ups, agapeto the third or fourth button, appeared aggressively retro in Ray-Bans andfaded Chucks. And one girl, taller than the rest, boyishly, casually cool in apair of rolled-up shorts and an oversized men's chambray work shirt, glided byon Rollerblades.

/blogs/browbeat/2011/06/07/the_return_of_rollerblades/jcr:content/body/slate_image
Julia  Felsenthal Julia Felsenthal

Julia Felsenthal is an assistant at Slate.

Rollerblades? Really? Is it possible that, along withflannels, floraldresses , DocMartens , croptops , momjeans , and ManicPanic hair dye , rollerblades are riding the tidal wave of '90s nostalgia back into the mainstream?

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After the turn of the millennium, Rollerblades, along with many other hallmarksof the '90s, were relegated to the territory of the über-nerd. As the Oregonian reported in May, statisticsfrom the Sporting Good Manufacturers Association reveal that in the years 2000to 2010, the number of in-line skaters in America dropped by 64 percent. (Thiswas after participation in the sport had increased by 634 percent between theyears 1987 to 1995.) But 10 years after Rollerblading began its precipitousdecline, there are a few, scattered inklings that the world of fashion and popculture is willing to give the sport another go. In its January 2010 issue, Elle Italia published a fashion spreadfeaturing modelLiya Kebede in Givenchy haute couture and Rollerblades . Six months later, acompany called K2 Skates released a very of-the-moment eco-friendlypair of in-line skates , made from bamboo and recycled plastic bottles. Andthis past September, British pop star Eliza Doolittle put out a single titled " Rollerblades ," whosechorus contains the somewhat incomprehensible lyric: "while beating up onyesterday, I was on my Rollerblades / Rolling on, moving on." Whatever thatmeans, it at least illustrates that Rollerblades are on the radar of theup-and-coming. (Doolittle was born in 1988.)

Perhaps it's the normalizing effect of these recent culturalreferences, or perhaps it's our re- acclimatization to babydoll dresses and grunge , butin New York this spring, Rollerblades seem less painfully out of place. I'venoticed an unusual number of decently fashionable people on the city streets,gliding along in the signature blading crouch, with nary an ounce of irony. Atmy five-year college reunion this past weekend, my former roommate, who worksin advertising and lives in Los Angeles, somewhat sheepishly admitted to havingrecently dusted off her blades. And on Sunday, my boyfriend, who has heard me waxpoetic on the subject, excitedly texted me that two of his female brunchcompanions had arrived at the restaurant in a rolling manner; he even sent afollow-up picture that assured me that at least one of the ladies in question,having removed her blades, was wearing a stylish pair of ankle-length skinnyjeans and patent leather flats.

Based on the number of New Yorkers I've seen getting back onthe bandwagon this spring, I predict that it's only a matter of Sundays beforeI open the New York Times Stylesection to find a trend piece on the curious return of that bygone craze:rollerblading. The last time rollerblading was big, the Times made it its mission to flood the zone with articles on thetopic, beginning with the birth of the craze in 1989. "It's called 'blading,' "noted the Gray Lady, "and it's the latest, fastest and coolest way to burncalories along the sun-bleached boardwalks of southern California." Over thenext 11 years, the Times moved on to rollerbladinginjuries; the danger of highspeed Rollerblading ; patentingthe Rollerblade design ; essays by Rollerbladingcommuters ; Rollerbladingfashion (which seemed to involve a lot of spandex-y unitards, not unlikethose currently on-sale at American Apparel ); Amishpeople who found Rollerblading speedier than horse-drawn carriage; orthodoxJews on Long Island, for whom in-line skates offered an entry point intothe more mainstream world; and, of course, Rollerbladingbrides , whose write-ups in the Vows section often noted the way Rollerblading helped cultivate romance.

Thefashion cycle , some claim, takes about twenty years. If that's true, thenthe moment for Rollerblades, which became mainstream in the late '80s andpeaked in the mid-'90s, is indeed nigh. What's also true? In 10 years we may findourselves noting the comeback of theonly form of self-propulsion nerdier than Rollerblades. You heard it herefirst.

Photographcourtesy of Mario Tama/Getty Images.

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