The image of the male motorcycle rider, his motorcycle, and the black leather jacket became a symbol of defiance and individualism in the twentieth century in the United States. The form, viewer and wearer, and context of the black leather jacket were intertwined in creating meaning. In the twentieth century, the black leather jacket became a cultural artifact that is easily recognized and associated with the motorcycle rider and travel to imaginative places or simply with the adrenaline rush of speeding down the road. The image was enhanced by the myth that accompanied the rider, developed by movies and television through specific teenage male characters identified as heroic. In the twentieth century, black leather jackets, T-shirts, and blue jeans were established as traditional American dress, each initially introduced and accepted outside the high-end, couture-led fashion industry.
The black leather jacket has continued into the twenty-first century as a new type of biker image has developed. According to the 2008 owner survey by the Motorcycle Industry Council (published in 2009), more than a million motorcycles (1.11 million) were sold in the United States in 2007, and female ownership of motorcycles passed the 10 percent mark, rising from 9.6 percent in 2003 to 12.3 percent in 2008. This increased number of female riders has affected the market trend of the leather jacket: It has demanded that designers for the market add feminine details that have been considered unconventional for male riders. Nonriders are also taking advantage of the image of the black leather jacket typically worn by riders; the jacket may be worn to contrast with a softened ensemble, resulting in a fashion statement. The progression of the black leather jacket in fashion history follows both the trickle-up and trickle-across patterns of fashion movement, originating from street style and later addressed by couture designers and manufactured for the mass market.
In the United States, the black leather jacket has been worn throughout much of the twentieth century. During World Wars I and II it was worn mostly for its functional and protective properties, for example, by pilots, who wore the leather bomber jacket. When the leather jacket became the choice of heroic wartime figures such as General Patton in World War II, the details of the jacket were not yet strictly defined.
In the mid-twentieth century, the image of both hero and rebel was established by the movie character Johnny Strabler, played by Marlon Brando, in The Wild One. This 1953 film by producer Stanley Kramer was a stylized portrait of rebellious youth in the United States and was considered the original motorcycle movie featuring the biker and his gang. The resulting image, subsequently adopted by fringe groups such as the Hell’s Angels, evolved to become a symbol of the defiant bad boy.
During the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, when the jacket was linked with the motorcycle and a particular type of wearer, the silhouette, surface, and design details became more defined and uniform. The black leather jacket took on the role of protective armor for the rebellious teenager who rode a motorcycle. Films of the 1950s like Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, both starring James Dean, and The Wild One made jeans into city clothes, and young men wore the urban uniform of blue jeans, T-shirt, and black leather jacket. Contrasted with the suits and ties worn by the rest of the world, the open-collared leather jacket became a symbol of alienation and rebellion. Though this hero image rebelled against established authority, in these films the riders were not identified with the lawless elements of society but portrayed as victims of forces they could not understand. The male biker wearing his black leather jacket flourished in the mid-twentieth century, and many teenagers adopted this macho image of youthful rebellion to look cool around their peers.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the black leather jacket continued to be linked to the macho male biker, but a young male did not have to own or ride a bike to wear the black leather jacket. He could still identify with the rider image created in midcentury. Popular culture provided segues between the streetwise, tough-guy motorcycle rider and the average Joe wearing a black leather jacket. Rock groups of the 1960s rebelled against convention, with men growing long hair and having perspectives that flaunted societal norms. The 1970s saw the rise of punk and heavy metal with increasingly edgy attitudes. The leather jacket continued its rise in popularity among the icons of popular culture and the followers of counterculture movements, as well as making its way to the mainstream for anyone who wanted to embrace some of the jacket’s original rebellious mythology.
The “Fonz” in the television comedy Happy Days is a character remembered as wearing a black leather jacket. However, in the 1970s, his softened image was perceived as less threatening than the macho image of previous media characters. Though viewers recognized the Fonz as part of the earlier youth culture because he wore the black leather jacket and adopted the mannerisms of a biker, he helped reinvent its image. The Fonz became a rebel turned functioning member of society, and he helped to open the door for greater cultural acceptance of the formerly fringe item.
In the 1980s and 1990s, motorcycling was considered a form of individual expression but also inherently social in nature. Motorcycle-rider communities offered a social outlet. Rider communities may be explained as offering membership in a particular social group that binds its members into collective identities and beliefs. Individuals assume different roles and identities, some of which are determined for them, such as gender and ethnicity, and others of which are chosen voluntarily. Sociologist Suzanne McDonald-Walker (2000, 182) has noted, “Motorcycling is a chosen identification that exists in a domain of relative autonomy dependent upon financial means and retail possibilities—yet also a form of self-expression of freedom and personal power. Riding a motorcycle is an activity but also a mode of being.”
At century’s end the image of the iconic jacket had evolved into something quite different from its beginnings. The rider of the early twentieth century was primarily male, with female riders comprising a small minority. However, in the last decades of the twentieth century, females were the fastest-growing demographic, representing at least 10 percent of total riders. McDonald-Walker reported that a female rider said that “no-one gives me a second look as a female rider. When I first started…in the early eighties, people were quite surprised. So there’s been a great change in a very short time” (55).
The motorcycle riders of the twenty-first century include both men and women who love to ride. Still loving the freedom and the sense of living on the edge, they continue to wear and value the black leather jacket. In 2009 riders were asked in an online survey how many jackets they owned and how their jackets compared to a sketch of the 1950s black leather jacket. Riders reported owning from one to twenty jackets. Responses indicated that the jacket has a long-lasting image as a product of riding, and there was some evidence of the continuation of the values associated with the original image.
The black leather jacket continues to have functional and symbolic importance in the twenty-first century. Since the 1980s there has been a shift in the jacket’s meaning, from being recognized primarily as the uniform of the outlaw or renegade motorcycle rider to a form of temporary disguise for many riders. While rooted in twentieth-century symbolism in the United States, this jacket’s iconic status may be changing through a perceptual and value shift related to the wearer and to lifestyle aspects unrelated to motorcycle riding.
For riders in the twenty-first century, the jacket continues to be purchased in its iconic form. However, men and women who ride and enjoy wearing the jacket often do not fit the bad-boy image. These bikers, who are older and have higher incomes and education levels than the early adopters, describe a number of different values in the wearing of it, such as fit and function in action and the feeling of freedom and living on the edge, according to dress scholar Marilyn DeLong and her colleagues. In the early twenty-first century, many riders who adopt the jacket for its bad-boy image seem to want that representation only temporarily—when they engage in putting on the leathers.
The traditional jacket of the twentieth century is still available in the early-twenty-first-century marketplace and prevalent as a viable prototype. The attributes of rider leathers provide a recognizable and consistent image: In the New York Times, reporter Guy Trebay declared in 2008, “They seem authentic, in the case of rider leathers, because they have changed so little. That they are functionally appropriate is no small part of their appeal. Like members of the International Best Dressed list, riders seem to have found what works for them, and are thus immune to the whims of style.” In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the myth and magic of wearing the black leather jacket spread from riders to nonriders, even if they did not adopt the entire image of the mid-twentieth-century young edgy persona and all of its related connotations. While the form of the motorcycle jacket still closely resembles the traditional black leather jacket, recent technological advancements and market trends have greatly increased the safety and comfort, decreased the weight, and added trendy elements for modern consumers.
Twenty-first-century rider responses to the prototypical image support the continuance of the form and meaning associated with the traditional black leather motorcycle jacket. The jacket’s form and meaning in its design and its relation to the biker in the United States created a distinctive image in the twentieth century. The body may function transitionally when its relationship to the material world can reveal the dynamic process of self-construction. This garment has served the function of aiding the wearer’s self-construction when worn.
There is little argument that the black leather jacket has become more than a simple, utilitarian garment worn by males and females alike. Differences in the style selected may be based on a number of different factors, from the wearer’s personal choice, comfort, or image management to the type of motorcycle he or she rides. In its straightforward form it has few frills and little that speaks directly of the symbol it has become, perceived in the twenty-first century as a must-have for many cultural groups and transformed into a uniform for men and women who value wearing it for the purpose of protection, identity, or even temporary disguise. Styles of the jacket have also been seen in such wide-ranging arenas as subcultures (including punk and grunge) and mall department stores.
The demographic shift to more female riders and a wider population wearing black leather jackets is happening simultaneous to an increase in the visibility of these jackets in the mainstream media and throughout the world of fashion. This popularity has not slowed, as is seen in film and television. In entertainment the jacket is still often used to identify who is cool or attractive. In the early twenty-first century, multiple programs have showcased the various images and meanings of the black leather jacket, ranging from reality soaps including The Real Housewives of Orange County, to fashion how-to programs like What Not to Wear, to custom motorcycle-building shows including American Chopper. Such jackets are also often seen on the backs of Hollywood and national celebrities including George Clooney, Jay Leno, Brad Pitt, and even Fred Thompson during his 2008 presidential campaign. Conversely, the jacket’s role in the media has shifted in some cases, and it is frequently shown in a humorous context or as a parody, as in the 2007 film Wild Hogs. The varied media imagery highlights an ever-growing split between form, function, and meaning.
The black leather jacket has evolved into a distinctive identity in other realms—high and mass-market fashion. Fashion-oriented wearers might not ride or live a biker lifestyle, but in their dress cues they can delve into the biker spirit that continues to surround the black leather jacket. Numerous designers have adopted the biker style, including the jacket, in their runway collections, including Junya Watanabe, Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons), Jean Paul Gaultier (Hermès), Karl Lagerfeld, and Bill Blass. One high-end designer of the twenty-first century, Gucci, created a leather jacket priced at $13,700, made of tan ostrich leather with recognizable features relating to the original.
In the fashion arena, the terms used to describe the traditional form are biker jacket or motorcycle jacket. The use of consistent terms speaks to the cultural knowledge of the viewing public—detailed descriptions are not needed to understand that this jacket is the style worn by rough-edged, fringe-of-society motorcycle riders and that, in wearing this jacket, the wearer is taking on some elements of this bad-boy image.
The jacket took definitive form with lifestyle motorcycle riders in the mid-twentieth century. These were individuals who were traditionally on the fringe of mainstream culture and fashion influence. The design of the jacket is functional for riding—fullness in the upper torso, ending at the upper hip, so as not to encumber the rider, especially the arms, which are free when raised in riding. The collar can be worn flat and anchored with the fasteners or raised for protection while riding. There is a double panel in front, and pockets are arranged for easy access to pocket change or other items needed during riding. Riders often remove extraneous hanging parts, especially metal ones, so they will not scratch the paint or otherwise get in the way. Donning the jacket is described as part of the ritual of riding: the smell of leather, the jacket heavy on the shoulders and encasing the body. Riders discuss the jacket as a classic that is long wearing and something they would replace if worn out: “I got mine 10 or 20 years ago and am still wearing it.”
High-fashion and mass-market designers choose consistency in form elements—just as in the black leather motorcycle jackets for motorcycle riders. The jackets are generally black leather, closed with a zipper that crosses the body from the upper collar on the left to the center waist. Often there are multiple zippered pockets across the chest and a buckled belt at hip level. While surface elements and the general aesthetic follow the tradition set by authentic motorcycle jackets, several differences exist. Safety features are virtually nonexistent in fashionable motorcycle jackets. Jackets worn by motorcycle riders have padding throughout the jacket—the elbows, shoulders, back—to protect the rider in case of an accident, and the leather itself functions as a thick second skin. Motorcycle riders openly express gratitude to their jackets for literally saving their skin when they have slid out on the road. Fashionable jackets are of lighter-weight leather, with no protective padding. Price is another difference between rider and nonrider jackets. Prices for Harley-Davidson riding jackets ranged from about US$200 to US$500 at retail value in 2011, whereas fashion jacket prices ranged from less than US$100 for faux-leather jackets to several thousand dollars for jackets by high-end designers. The jacket material also differs. As noted, fashionable jackets are often made of faux-leather material (called pleather). Fashion-forward young women are often unable to afford the price tag of real leather and are willing to relinquish quality to obtain the look. In fall 2009, Hollister sold the “Highway 101 Moto Jacket” for US$130. It was a polyester and faux-leather classic motorcycle-style jacket that presented the appearance of the genuine classic 1950s style with a zipper angling from the high collar on the left to the center waist of the jacket. Zippered pockets completed the look.
While many jackets sought to replicate the form through the use of leather (or a leather look) and maintained the traditional black (or dark brown) color, others looked to the general shape to express the relationship. Fast-fashion retailer H&M offered an off-white lace style in their Spring/Summer 2010 line for US$59.95—far less than any authentic motorcycle jacket for riders. In addition to the “Highway 101 Moto Jacket,” Hollister also sold one called “Wipeout Beach,” navy and orange plaid in a wool and nylon blend. It is described on their website as “supersoft, classic plaid pattern, asymmetrical zip closure, front pockets, seagull embroidery, classic fit.” Although its description does not mention the words biker, motorcycle, or anything that would connect it to the biker trend, the jacket has the exact cut and shape of the “Highway 101 Moto Jacket”—down to the zipper and pocket placement. The only difference lies in the material chosen. It sold out quickly in Hollister stores across the country, a testament to its appeal to young women. Juicy Couture, a high-end sportswear and luxury clothing line, offered multiple motorcycle jackets in their Fall 2010 line, made of several materials—denim, corduroy, fleece, and leather. Their leather version was of high-quality black leather and incorporated nearly all of the recognizable attributes of authentic rider jackets: shoulder epaulets, brass hardware, an angled zippered pocket on the chest, two pockets at the waist, and a belt at the bottom edge. The differences from rider jackets lay in the center-front zipper closure, the very slim fit, the soft and lightweight leather, and the lack of protective padding. Additionally, the jacket was designed to fall just above the hip bone—shorter than jackets worn by motorcycle riders and therefore geared toward being figure-flattering and on-trend rather than designed for safety concerns.
To the nonriding public, the silhouette and form appear to be most important to achieving and maintaining the jacket’s iconic nature. A survey of twenty-first-century nonriding consumers offers valuable insights. More than half of nonrider respondents answered that they owned at least one leather jacket and had purchased their jackets at department or retail stores. The respondents were asked to check images associated with the two types of leather jacket: a sketch of the traditional black leather jacket and a fashion leather jacket worn by the actress Anne Hathaway during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Chelsea Art Museum in 2008. The fashion leather jacket features a tightly fitted bodice, long sleeves, no belt, and no studs but has zipper details similar to the traditional jacket. The nonriders answered that the traditional jacket still has a bad-boy image of being rebellious, masculine, tough, and a motorcycle rider; on the other hand, the fashion example had a much softened image of the wearer as trendy, fashionable, feminine, sexy, and approachable.
In the early-twenty-first-century zeitgeist, while the symbolic image of the mid-twentieth-century leather jacket (that is, one that displays the wearer’s edgy persona in society) is fading away, new meanings have become associated with it, and positive images are linked with it; when nonriders wear one, the jacket draws compliments, which positively influences the wearer’s self-esteem and confidence. A quotation from a nonrider provides a good example of how people feel when they receive accolades from others regarding their leather jackets: “I have gotten many positive compliments when wearing it about how I look or how it looks on me. I feel better or happier when people compliment it.” For nonriders, the leather jacket has become a fashion item that receives a high level of acceptance from the mainstream as a form of tolerable rebellion. However, since the jacket still embodies remnants of the mid-twentieth-century image of rebellious young hipsters, it can create a negative situation for the wearer, even in twenty-first-century contexts. Some nonriders shared their emotional responses to the leather jacket, such as “I might look too rough or punk” and “some people look at me weirdly.” In addition, inexpensive materials, often plastic leather or vinyl, influence the image of the leather jacket negatively. That is, while the traditional leather jacket, made out of 100 percent leather, is associated with an image of protection and authenticity, the fashion leather jacket, manufactured for the mass market and fast fashion, has developed an image of being low quality. A female nonrider stated, “When wearing the fake leather, people always ask me if it is fake.”
When this incarnation of the trend first surfaced, there was some debate as to the staying power of the look. Bloggers (a twenty-first-century means of disseminating opinion and influence) and fashion editors alike commented that while the jacket was the perfect means to transition a dress from summer to fall, its popularity could prove to be its downfall. Blogging on the trend’s heavy use in Paris, Chicago’s associate fashion editor, Elisabeth Fourmont, pondered whether a wearer really wanted to look like an extra from the musical Grease. Even so, she conceded that she would buy a motorcycle jacket because she had always loved the style.
The changing demographics and heightened awareness of the black leather jacket, particularly in the fashion world, have had a cyclical impact on motorcycle riders’ dress as well, and it is not just black leather jackets that are making up the new biker image. Harley-Davidson has a full line of clothing and accessories for women, men, youth, and even dogs. The motorcycle manufacturer Triumph produces women’s clothing including jeans, jackets, belts, and boots and has partnered with the fashion brand Lucky Jeans to further increase their line. Additionally, fashion shows are increasingly being added to motorcycle events.
Viewing the Jacket. Looking at themselves in the mirror, many describe their image when wearing a black leather jacket as “damn cool.” This holds for riders and nonriders alike. Wearers feel their presence is enhanced with the all-over distribution of the black matte color that covers body surfaces with their hair, freckles, bumps, and bulges. When a person wears the jacket, body surfaces become abstractions, resulting in a defined silhouette, especially if one wears the biker leathers head to toe. The jacket is a combination of black and silver and is hard edged. What makes the hard edge? Black outlines the body silhouette first and only secondarily calls attention to the black matte surfaces and the details of the shiny silver belt buckles, zippers, tabs, and grommets.
Motorcycle riders who wear the jacket for safety and ease of use pair the jacket with other utilitarian clothing meant to augment their safety and comfort when riding in varied weather and on different types of rides. Riders describe helmets, jeans, leather pants or chaps, gloves, and solid leather boots as appropriate dress for a biker. Leather, leather, and more leather from neck to toe is stated as the best choice to pair with the jacket when riding a motorcycle. When riders wear their jackets off their motorcycles, the jacket is generally paired with jeans. It is worn as an everyday, cool-weather jacket to concerts, out with friends, or in other casual scenarios.
The overall appearance that riders versus nonriders construct with their biker jackets differs greatly. While riders maintain the (literal and mental) hard-edged silhouette put forth by the jacket, nonriders seek to soften the sharpness of the form by pairing it with softer fabrics and shapes. A chiffon or tulle skirt is a common pairing for trend-following individuals wearing motorcycle jackets. Worn with jeans, the jacket may be moderated with scarves, pastel colors, ballet flats, or lace. As already noted, fashionable jackets tend to eliminate the bulky safety padding of authentic jackets, creating a more refined, slimmer silhouette. These jackets also seek to soften the edginess through use of nonleather materials— providing a softer hand and pliability that are aligned with traditional femininity and a nonconfrontational position. The online retailer Net-A-Porter expressed a converse attitude in their Facebook posting for New Year’s Eve dress in 2010: “Toughen up a fabulously feminine party dress with a sequined biker jacket, metallic heels and a studded clutch for modern opulence” (Net-A-Porter’s Facebook page, 29 December 2010). An Ashish black sequined biker jacket, for US$1,390, was suggested. Thus, the use of the jacket to alter or support the overall impression given by the wearer is evident in both rider and nonrider cases. While the rider continues the overall hard-edged aesthetic of the jacket, nonriders deliberately seek to accept the image only partially.
Wearing the Jacket. The black leather jacket has become a classic form that is widely recognized. Riders discuss the pleasurable sensation of wearing the leather, which is both visual and tactile. Wearers describe the confluence of self with jacket when it is donned, resulting in a commingling of body and jacket. The heavy black leather encases the body, making the wearer feel powerful and somewhat animalistic. Wearers suggest the transformation of their bodies in donning the jacket and even suggest the possibility of encountering a bit of magical power in the process. To understand the black leather jacket requires knowing about its relation to the wearer and the difference in the wearer as rider versus nonrider of a motorcycle.
The jacket is part of the ensemble for riding. Usually worn with close-fitting clothing on the lower torso, such as denim or leather, and leather boots, the jacket becomes a source of protection from road rash and cold temperatures. The jacket is worn to express individuality but also is valued as a way to become a member of a group of riders. Wearers of the black leather jacket speak of both the individuality and the democratization in wearing it, that is, becoming a community of equals as a result.
Wearers who do not ride are focused on the image and symbolism they are evoking through putting on the rider-style leather jacket. In the late twentieth century, young people could boost their self-esteem and take on a bit of magic in donning this icon without necessarily adopting the habit of riding. Nonriders may still enjoy the transformation. In the twenty-first century, nonriders get pleasure from the remnants of the bad-boy image that began in the mid-twentieth century, without sacrificing their mainstream image. Worn as a fashion statement in leather, artificial leather, or fabric, the jacket can still be recognized as a continuation of its earlier stylistic features and can still be part of the general image present in many people’s minds.
In the twenty-first century, the meaning of the image is so strong that people might be buying the image, the community, the ideas, and the spirit more than creating or living them. While the form remains consistent, its function and meaning may change with the context, time, and wearer. The ultimate purpose of wearing the jacket can be to create reality or an image through design symbolism. All in all, the black leather jacket has transformed in this century, but its power lies in the continuation of the classic image of the twentieth century.
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See also Iconic Figures in Western Fashion.