Wheels of distinction: The semiotics of the pram

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A pram isn’t just a practical piece of equipment. It’s also a status symbol, a fashion statement – and a moral choice, finds mum-to-be Clare Dwyer Hogg

In one of the earliest baby transport stories, Moses floats down the Nile in a basket made of reeds. Weighing up the options available, his mother deemed this the safest way to get her son from A to B – and he didn’t do too badly for himself, you may recall.

More recently, another boy named Moses was pictured journeying around fashionable London streets, this time in a huge Silver Cross pram, pushed by his mother Gwyneth. The ‘Balmoral’ model was a reassuringly retro choice – established in 1887, Silver Cross was the pram company favoured by George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and since then they’ve provided the wheels for a succession of tiny royals (including princes Harry and William), and they’re still handmade in Yorkshire, as they have been for the past 130 years.

English history and lineage is something that appeals to A-list parents from US; Gwen Stefani, Sarah Jessica Parker, Madonna and Maggie Gyllenhaal, have all been snapped behind the wheels of a Silver Cross. Which are, incidentally, pretty big. We’re talking the type that can deal with a boulevard, but not a bus. And naturally, the babies they carry look amazingly secure behind all that material and metal, but then, that’s not really the sole concern when it comes to buying a pushchair: all designs, by regulation, have to be safe.

No, the appeal of the Balmoral is that it’s quite a beautiful thing to look at. It also costs up to £1200 and is only for babies who lie down, not toddlers who like to sit up. Which means that if you’re not a film star or a pop icon, you have to consider very carefully about why you’re buying it.

“Think about the mundane practicalities of how and where you’ll use the buggy and nothing else,” says seasoned pram-handler Heidi Scrimgeour, 32, a writer and mother of Zach, two, and Edan, four. “Who cares what buggy Gwyneth Paltrow has? I bet she doesn’t have to push it up a hill with 10 Sainsbury’s bags hanging off the handles.”

The problem is, while choosing a pushchair shouldn’t exactly be one of the most glamorous decisions to make in one’s lifetime, suddenly it seems that, yes, looks, status and style are, in fact, serious considerations. And if you just happen to be pushing your child in the same pram Gwen Stefani used, well, every step you take with that brand brings you closer to a certain type of cool.

***

Pushchairs are no longer just that – a chair you can push. There are photographs of me, circa 1979, sitting on what can only be described as a deckchair with wheels. The wheels were not all-terrain, there was no car seat attachment, central chassis, adjustable back-rest, convertible pram to pushchair accessory, and there was a distinct lack of cup holder for takeaway coffees. Maybe that’s why I walked at nine months old. Yet, 30 years on, and two months to go before I need to buy a push chair for my first impending offspring, the range of options are bedazzling. And that was true even before the Taga pushchair-that-turns-into-a-bike came on the UK market. Yes, a pushchair that turns into a bike. In 20 seconds. Whizzing your child around in front of the handlebars turns a typical journey into an urban adventure, say the manufacturers. It is for busy parents who live in the city and are environmentally conscious. The Taga does have a certain panache, it’s true, confirmed by publicity shots showing a slender smiling mother cycling around parks, pointing out landmarks to a delighted toddler seated in front. If I was planning to spend £1,695 on a pushchair, I might be tempted.

“The child is at exhaust height,” notes one of my colleagues drily. This is by-the-by – I’m an environmentally-conscious city dweller who wants to turn a typical journey into an urban adventure. How else do I go about doing that, if not with a pushchair that turns into a bike? Perhaps more importantly, what does the arms race in pram technology tell us about modern parenting?

“I think there have been some fundamental changes in the role of being a parent,” says Peter Cooper, Childhood Psychologist and CEO of CRAM International, a market research company that tries to understand the contemporary consumer mindset. “There’s considerable pressure now to demonstrate to the world how you spend your time and money, and how desperately you’re concerned with safety and protection.”

The new pushchairs, with all their accoutrements, he says, are designed to satisfy these needs: to display your new baby with pride, and make a social statement about care. Yes, they have practical benefits, but the real appeal, maintains Cooper, is that they project status, fulfil lifestyle aspirations, connote pride, and, he says, can be used even as a way to muffle unspoken anxiety about bringing up children.

Despite the downturn in the economy, spending on children appears to be unaffected (last month, Mothercare reported almost a ten-fold profit increase on a year ago); Cooper’s point is that while we’re still spending money, there’s a move away from sheer materialism to spending on what is emotionally important to us.

“The sheer size of pushchairs make a statement that the child is important,” he says. “The significance of the child is increased according to the size it occupies both mentally and physically.”

This doesn’t bode well for me – I tell Cooper about my early travel experiences on the mobile deckchair, and he laughs.

“It would be madness to conclude that your parents loved you less,” he says, which is reassuring, but also highlights the natural conclusion of all this choice. How guilty should you feel if you if you go for a low-fi pushchair that fulfils only basic needs?

“Isn’t it sad when parents can’t afford the best for their children?” is a comment Liz Slimon, 32, a customer service worker from Brighton, has heard with regard to the less showy Maclaren brand she uses (the ‘Techno Classic’ which retails at around £170) to transport Dylan, who is two-and-a-half. But she’s unabashed.

“I love my buggy,” she says defiantly. Madeleine Jensen, a 32-year-old teacher from Twickenham, also uses a Maclaren, for Tommas, her three-year-old. “I did feel a bit self-conscious that ours wasn't particularly pretty, or fashionable,” she admits, “but this was superseded by a smug feeling when I saw flustered mothers struggling with the disassembly of the ‘Porsche’ buggies… For the uninitiated I would advise to think where you go regularly, how you get there and how easy the pushchair is to collapse one-handed.”

It might be hard to remember that sensible advice when actually choosing a pram for the first time: clever marketing means that it’s impossible to wriggle out of being pigeon-holed by your choice. Whether you like it or not, the little four-wheeler you use to transport your child makes a statement about your lifestyle. For instance, the most fashionable choice is, most parents agree, the Bugaboo range. It is fair to say that the Bugaboo, originally from the Netherlands and now an extremely successful international company, is a lifestyle brand. Their website isn’t just about the pushchairs they sell – it’s about the vibrant, dynamic and stylish life you can live with the pushchair.

“Bugaboo is dedicated to inspiring parents and their children to move in the modern world,” reads the statement on the opening page of their website. Their ‘Daytrips’ section reads just like a hip guide to cosmopolitan cities, except with more pram-awareness; each of the three buggies in that range is designed with a different parent in mind: the Gecko has “minimalist design, bringing the pushchair back to its essence”, the Chameleon “lets you take the road less travelled”, while the Bee is for “parents who live on the fly”.

“Look at the video for Bugaboo Bee online and tell me where the baby comes in,” one disgruntled mother asks. I watched, and was, I have to say, taken with the synchronised movements of the good-looking men wheeling the empty Bee around. And the baby comes in, if you’re wondering, at the very, very end, post-fun, with the mothers. But then, this is part of the sales process. Buggies are an industry, and the industry wants to get the Renaissance Man on board too. It’s no secret, goes the logic, that men like gadgetry and machines. A suitably technical item to wheel around could mean that even the unreconstructed dad won’t feel compelled to push the buggy with one hand. But, seasoned buggy-pushers say, this geek allure dissipates somewhat when potential urban adventures are actually a trudge to the grocery store.

“We were definitely swayed by the ‘Italian style and elegance’ image of the brand of pram we chose,” confirms Heidi Scrimgeour. “That all went out the window pretty soon after we stopped seeing the pram as one of our first parental consumer choices. We started seeing it as a bloody vital thing for lugging our kid around so that we could continue some semblance of normality as we adjusted to the head-wreck that is parenting.”

***

It isn’t so surprising that first-timers like me find choosing a pram so tricky. Having children has, in recent years, been elevated to a sacred rite of passage. Never has so much been written about children and their upbringing. How many column inches have been devoted to the social mores of the school run? With expectations so high, no wonder it’s impossible to find the ‘perfect’ contraption in which to transport one’s precious baby. Victoria Pearson, who reviews pushchairs for Which? magazine, affirms this.

“They’re expected to cater for every single need a child could possibly have from zero to three years old,” she says. “Even the best ones we tested have niggles. We don’t expect other products to transport the child, all your bags, and do as well over a sandy beach as on an escalator. It’s amazing given the number of jobs they have to do that some can be so good.” Her advice is to be honest about the type of person you are. Aspire to walk in the park but usually take the bus? Avoid three-wheelers that are smooth for rough terrain but tricky to manoeuvre in narrow aisles. Not keen on DIY? Pneumatic tyres absorb shocks, but they do get punctures. And for all the attractions of a buggy that will last from newborn to toddler stage, it’s often these that are the first to go.

“The majority of parents buy two buggies,” Pearson says. “A brand new baby and a three-year-old are completely different beings.” She says that while prams that convert from a baby carriage to an upright are great, once you’re just using the basic seat, you’re still carting around all the heavy engineering for an aspect of the pram that you no longer need. Practicalities aside, it seems that the power of the brand often wins out.

“If [parents] love the way something looks, they will forgive it,” Pearson confirms. “But it’s all too easy to condemn people for choosing the fashionable options: none of us want something covered in teddy bears.”

I haven’t decided whether to go with the trends or strike out on my own. But I’ve been thinking: in a crowd of Bugaboos and Balmorals, a basket made out of reeds could really turn heads.

Easy riders: Who’s pushing what?

Ruth and Adam Dodds; Archie (3 months)

PROFESSION: Both work in construction

BRAND: Mamas & Papas Primo Viaggio

COST: Supposed to be £750 – bought in a sale by Adam’s parents for £625.

Adam: “It’s so easy to break down and put in the car in 30 seconds.”

Ruth: “He actually fell in love with the advert because it had a man pushing it… the buggy is also a carry cot, and will last Archie up to the age of four, because it adapts.”



Gabriella Bucklend; Leon (3 months)

PROFESSION: Music teacher

BRAND: Zekiwa

COST: Around £200-£300; bought on eBay for £50

“It’s from Germany, and it’s a total beast – you have to tip it to move it because the front wheels are fixed. It’s slow going. But it’s so cushioned and comfy that Leon loves it – it’s like a Bentley for him, the Rolls-Royce of prams.”



Jo Owens; Sophia (7 months)

PROFESSION: Banker

BRAND: Bugaboo Chameleon

COST: £700-£800

“It’s really sturdy, which is good because I’ve got big steps outside my house. It’s a little bit tricky when you first have it but when you get used to dismantling it, it’s fine.”



Ellie Samuels; Louie (21 months)

PROFESSION: Dancer

BRAND: Bugaboo Chameleon

COST: Almost £1,000 with all the accessories; a gift.

“It’s really comfy for the baby and the benefit is you can fit three separate bits on to it – but I recently bought a smaller one that folds up as well. The downside of this one is that you have to separate all the bits, so you can’t just collapse it.”



Heidi Peachey; Anna (7 months)

PROFESSION: Clinical researcher for Cancer Research UK

BRAND: Micra Lite fastfold

COST: Around £150.

“We live in a second-storey flat so needed something light, and also need something streamlined for getting around. It’s been everything it’s needed to be.”



Kate Ereira; Tabby (7 months), Sophie (4 years)

PROFESSION: Full-time mother

BRAND: Bugaboo Bee

COST: about £300.

“It’s lightweight and it’s fairly easy to get on and off buses. You can put a newborn baby lying flat in it; other Bugaboos are bigger and have a separate carrycot which is more expensive.”



Helen Winder; Astrid Belle (2 months)

PROFESSION: Restorer of old film posters

BRAND: Chicco

COST: £40.

“I got it in a second-hand shop. The top lifts off so she can sleep in it if I go anywhere, and it also changes into a buggy for when she’s older – although it might not last that long



Maria Rowland; Thomas (1 year)

PROFESSION: Nanny (but Thomas is her baby)

BRAND: Bugaboo Gecko

COST: Second-hand from Gumtree for £275 (around £500 new).

“This is a good all-rounder, although the best one really is the cheapest – I’m probably going to end up getting a Maclaren that you can throw in the car!”



Emma Vamderwiele; Charlotte (20 months)

PROFESSION: Accountant

BRAND: Maclaren

COST: Around £100.

“I got this because it’s lightweight, folds up and you can throw it around anywhere.”



Amelia Quicke; Joseph (2 years, 5 months), Daisy (1 year, 1 month)

PROFESSION: Product Manager

BRAND: Phil & Teds

COST: Around £400.

“It was really the only option for us because it’s a double pushchair that’s not double width; it was the only one we knew of when we bought it. It’s quite compact.”



Natalie Knill; Orli Star (6 months)

PROFESSION: Personal Trainer

BRAND: Britax Vigour 3

COST: From eBay for around £275 (around £500 new)

“I train and teach ‘buggysize’ in the park, so need it to go over rough terrain. These wheels have to be blown up; aside from that, it’s great. Also, in theory, you can run with it.”

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