When we talk about biker fashion, the images of leather jackets and cool silver rings immediately pop up in our heads. Every element of the motorcycle style has a reason, whether it is a skew zipper or a massive chain, and this reason is more than a bold and masculine look. Let’s see how biker fashion evolved since the very first riders mounted their steel horses.
THE EARLY DAYS OF BIKER FASHION
Today, motorcycling is available for everyone, for men and women of all walks of life and social status. However, this was not always the case. A motorcycle was a luxury item and only affluent people could afford it. A little over a hundred years ago, when the peculiar machine was introduced to the public, the rich did not use it as a vehicle, they use it for fun. They rode their motorbikes exclusively to the nearest lake or park. However, even in a saddle, their look should have corresponded to the true gentleman image. The bread and butter of the biker look of that time implied a tweed jacket according to the latest rustic fashion, a flat cap so that the wind doesn’t ruffle the hair, and a generally neat and tidy appearance. Riders did not ignore protection either - they wore high boots to prevent leg and foot injuries.
A couple of decades after its debut, motorcycles have significantly added in speed, agility, and handling. Riders had to put on protective clothing so as not to get scratches or bruises. Those gears also helped to keep hands warm, especially when dashing at high speeds. So, along with high boots, biker fashion adopted gauntlets. In particular, police and military employees have been seen on the road dressed like that.
Then, at the turn of the 1910s and 1920s, the public received a new spectacle – motorcycle races. Its occurrence marked the emergence of a distinguished motorcycle fashion. If earlier riders adapted casual clothes or equestrian gears, now motorcycle clubs started creating a special uniform for their racers. The classic element of motorcycle race fashion, which can still be seen in vintage fashion collections, was a sweater. Dyed in vibrant colors and offering fitting silhouettes, sweaters carried logos or names of motorcycle clubs and brands they represented.
Still, biker outfits remained not practical enough. They provided little protection against rain, snow, and wind. Eventually, two-wheeler enthusiasts noticed military uniforms, in particular, leather overcoats of free cut dearly beloved by aviators. Leather became a perfect solution to safeguard against the cold wind but riders didn’t really feel comfortable in a saddle because of the coats’ elongated design. Then, Irving Schott, the owner of a small sewing business and avid motorcyclist himself, adjusted aviator coats specifically for riders. 1928 became the year when the famous Perfecto leather jacket came out. This was the beginning of the story for the most iconic item of biker wardrobe.
By the early 1940s, Schott’s company became so popular in America that it received a major order from the Department of Defense. This event marked a new round in the popularization of leather jackets. Now, not only motorcyclists but also military pilots started being seen in Perfectos. Aircraft of that time didn’t have pressurized cockpits. To protect themselves from the headwind, pilots put on a jacket with a narrowed waist and elongated sleeves made of dense bull skin. The back carried a leather fold giving a pilot freedom of movement. However, the main distinguishing features of such a jacket were a belt on the bottom, pockets with zippers instead of buttons, and, of course, a slanting zipper extending from the left shoulder to the right thigh, which provided great protection from the wind. Interestingly, all these design elements have remained unchanged to this day.
When the Second World War came to an end, veterans returned home. They took their combat leather jackets with them. At that time, many Americans were hooked on motorcycles and guess what war veterans bought for money they earned? That's right, they bought Harley Davidson mean machines and cruised around the country leather jacket-clad. It was former military veterans, pilots in particular, who created biker clubs, the main informal symbol of which was black jackets as the personification of masculinity, foolhardiness, and rebellion.
PERFECTO JACKET ALTERNATIVES
Although the motorcycle movement originated in the United States, two-wheelers were popular around the world, especially in England. As you know, it rains all the time there. While a leather jacket provides excellent wind protection, it is powerless in the wet weather. Therefore, it was a matter of time before waterproof clothing became available to riders. J. Barbour & Sons heard the riders’ pleas and designed the first waterproof wad-cotton jacket exclusively for motorcyclists. The jacket was distinguished by four pockets, one of which was intended for maps. For about 13 years, this model remained the standard of waterproof motorcycle clothing until Belstaff and its Trialmaster entered the scene in 1948. This is exactly the jacket you can see in Che Guevara’s and Steve McQueen’s photographs.
We know the exact date when leather and wad-cotton motorcycle jackets came out but everything is not so clear when it comes to biker footwear. It is known that the first engineering boots manufactured by the rivaling Chippewa and the West Coast Shoe Company appeared in the 1930s. They got this name because they were originally created for engineers working on the railways of the United States. However, the design that mimics traditional English riding boots appealed to motorcycle riders, too.
BIKER STYLE IN POPULAR CULTURE
Despite widespread use in the biker environment, Perfecto leather jacket was almost unknown among average Joes, since few of them came across motorcycle gangs face to face. A leather jacket could have remained an element of a biker uniform if it weren’t for the movie “The Wild One,” in which the brilliant Marlon Brando plays the leader of a biker gang. The jacket of the film’s main character was embellished with shiny rivets and the back carried an image of a skull with crossed pistons. Blue jeans and engineering boots complimented his look. Only a cap felt a bit out of place since real bikers never rocked canvas models. Despite this little inaccuracy, the look of Brando’s character became an illustration of a typical representative of a biker subculture.
Two years later, James Dean played another iconic biker character in "Rebel Without a Cause". A cigarette between his lips, Triumph TR5 Trophy between his thighs, and a ubiquitous leather jacket - these are three elements of his style. The jacket's fate was a foregone conclusion - becoming an integral part of the youth wardrobe, it began to symbolize the hooligan spirit, even despite the prohibition in American schools. Such prohibitions, followed by the tragic death of James Dean, only fueled the interest in biker fashion.
A leather jacket is a versatile item but it is not suitable for a hot climate, especially considering the fact that motorcycle clubs originally came from the south of the United States, where temperatures go over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot climate requires an appropriate wardrobe, and local bikers created it. Instead of a full-blown jacket, they came up with light vests without sleeves (so-called cuts) made of either leather or denim. A mandatory attribute of such vests were the colors (emblem) of the biker club sewn on the back. The colors consist of several elements, in particular the name of the club, its location, and the logo. Soon, motorcycle clubs throughout America and around the world followed suit, and vests with decals became a staple of biker fashion.
HELMETS AND PROTECTIVE GEARS
Helmets weren’t particularly esteemed by the very first bikers. Since they considered themselves to be rebels, they disregarded the law requiring wearing a helmet for safety. Despite that, the first protective headwear appeared after Lawrence of Arabia died in a motorcycle accident in 1935. During World War II, it was mandatory for military motorcyclists to wear helmets made of cork or tin. More or less modern full-face helmets with cork lining were released in the 1960s. Today, except for separate desperate daredevils, bikers don’t risk riding their steel horses without putting on a helmet. Troubles with the law, hefty fines, and death statistics in motorcycle accidents put safety first.
ROCKERS ROCK LEATHER JACKETS, TOO
After the overwhelming success of biker films, which put a spotlight on leather jackets, not only fashionistas but also musicians had their eyes on this cool-looking item. For rockers, convenience was not a priority, and therefore jackets began to acquire elements of personality. For example, in the 1960s, hippies added fringe to the back and sleeves that looked like wings of an eagle, a symbol of freedom.
The very first musician to put on a black jacket for his performance was Elvis Presley. Many other rockers followed his lead. In the mid-70s, the Ramones were seen on the scene fully dressed in Perfecto jackets. Punks also contributed to jacket designs - they added studs, spikes, and chains. Rockers, metalheads, and even pop singers enjoyed this fashion trend, too. Starting from the 1970s and 80s, the Kiss, Sex Pistols, Debbie Harry, Metallica, Accept, and even Madonna and George Michael have been rocking leather outwear.
The pioneers of the biker movement didn’t really need any jewelry. They preferred practicality over stunning looks. However, they had certain accessories that performed a utilitarian function. For instance, bikers were the first to wear wallet chains. Today, this accessory is rather to enhance the look but in the 1950s, it was exclusively used to protect wallets from pickpockets and loss. If you were a biker, would you be excited to find out that you left your pocketbook behind hundreds of miles ago? We are sure you wouldn’t. Therefore, riders attached a chain to their most valuable possessions. In the 1970s, punks repurposed chains – from preventive means, they became a fashion accessory and even a weapon (if you swing a massive chain or wrap it around your fist, it becomes a serious weapon indeed). Today, modern bikers utilize chains either way.
Biker bracelets are another piece of jewelry that used to be rather practical than fashionable. Riders used to wear wide leather gears around their wrists and arms that performed a two-fold mission. First of all, they allowed reducing fatigue in wrists occurring after continuous holding onto the handlebars. Second, they provided some scratch and bruise protection if a rider fell out of the saddle. With time, the size of those leather armors reduced, they acquired decorative elements and eventually turned into bracelets.
The most iconic elements of biker style after the Perfecto jacket are, perhaps, rings. Much like bracelets and wallet chains, they boasted a useful (along with embellishing) function as well. It is not a secret that bikers are hotheaded dudes. It is also a well-known fact that many motorcycle gangs are at deadly feud with their rivals. Therefore, fights, especially fist fights, were a common entertainment in the biker community. And to make the blow more effective, those daredevils put knuckle dusters on. Unfortunately for them, the Johnny Law outlawed brass knuckles in many states. However, motorcyclists soon came up with a worthy alternative – heavy, solid, and massive Mexican rings. They weren’t prohibited, they blended well with the masculine biker image, and they were as effective as real knuckle dusters.
Bikers discovered those rings in the late 1940s. Motorcycle gangs used to control Southern California, not too far from the Mexico border. Those territories had many Mexico expats and immigrants. They brought a piece of their home culture with them, including hefty men’s rings crafted from scrap metal. And not just any metal but Centavos, coins that lost their value after the Mexican revolution. There were too many of those, they cost nothing, so artisans started melting them down to give them a different shape and sell them as crafts. One hell of a ring boasting an imposing shape and some cool symbols cost only 5 bucks, and soon enough those 5-dollar ring occupied motorcyclists’ fingers all over America.
Today, biker rings are mostly made of sterling silver and steel but they continue carrying Mexican symbols including Indians, Mayan and Aztec gods, horseshoes, eagles, and others. If you would like to get one of such rings, there is no better place to browse through than AJT Jewellery.