“Beyond Rebellion: Fashioning The Biker Jacket”

“Head Out on the Highway…”

Quick! Think of the coolest, most bad-ass item of apparel you own! The one you reach for to give you instant “street cred” and , if you’re like me, you reach for it a lot! Times up… If you thought of a black leather biker jacket then congratulations and here’s something else you’ll like. I viewed “Beyond Rebellion: Fashioning the Biker Jacket” a new graduate student exhibit at the Museum at FIT (March 4-April 5) and got a compact history of this iconic garment. The exhibit serves to show how an item originally designed for the limited use or purpose of riding motorcycles has become something so versatile and commonplace that you can see versions of it just about anywhere, for any age and at any price point.

Harley-Davidson Jacket Black leather and metal 1983, USA

According to the exhibit literature, the original black leather biker jacket is widely recognized as the Perfecto by the Schott Brothers of New York City. It was created in 1928 at the request of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle distributor and its design is inspired from the black leather jackets of German World War I aviators. In the museum exhibit there is a chart showing how each design element of this “granddaddy of them all,” archetypal motorcycle jacket was actually derived for functionality rather than for fashion. Rather than the button closures featured on military jackets it was determined that a zipper closure and a belt would better protect the wearer from the wind drafts. I did not realize that the function of epaulets was to hold down gloves when they were not being worn so I learned something as well.

Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”

The jacket got its “bad” reputation after WWII when motorcycle clubs like the Hells Angels cultivated a lawless image to break away from the conformity of post-war America. By 1947 a club known as the Boozefighters from Hollister, California clashed with police and inspired the 1953 film “The Wild One” with Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando’s look in the film was complete with white t-shirt, cuffed jeans and Perfecto jacket which served to reinforce the rebellious “bad boy” persona in the public consciousness. I was a little surprised that there was no reference to James Dean in his leather biker jacket but maybe in the interest of not cluttering the relatively small space they thought one bad boy rebel was enough? It’s hard to forgive an omission that blatant but I’ll try to get over it.

Comme des Garcons (Rei Kawakubo)

It wasn’t until 1960 that the biker jacket got a makeover as a high fashion item when Yves Saint Laurent took inspiration from beatniks and Left Bank Parisian students. He created a haute couture collection for Christian Dior with a jacket of black crocodile  skin trimmed in mink. The exhibit features a 2009 YSL leather jumpsuit (that I wanted to jump right into) that was designed with elements of a biker jacket. The relationship of punk rockers, heavy metal rockers as well as leather fetishists of the 1970s and 80’s is also explored in the exhibit. Each group personalized the basic jacket whether it was adding spikes, metal studs or pins, cut-off sleeves, trapunto stitching or faux fur. There are several designer examples of the jacket including one from Versace with their typical gold hardware, a 2005 Comme des Garcons (Rei Kawakubo) heavily stitched (reminiscent of a baseball glove) version, a Jean Paul Gaultier mixed media jacket as well as a Rick Owens suit of denim, wool felt and leather, just to name a few.

Lastly, there is a wall featuring swatches of different types of leather (lambskin, cowhide, goatskin etc.) so that you can see the thickness and texture of each and compare and contrast. The entire exhibit took almost a year to curate and had to be well edited due to size constraints although it did seem (at least to me) that there could have been a few more items included just to “flesh out” the collection a bit more. Honestly, I’m embarrassed to admit it but I could have my own leather biker jacket exhibit just by opening my closet!

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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