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The Bikeriders: The Wild History of the Leather Jacket

The Bikeriders: The Wild History of the Leather Jacket

The Bikeriders: The Wild History of the Leather Jacket

Esince Marlon Brando walked into that bar in 1953 The wild one in his Levi’s 501 jacket, Schott Perfecto and engineer boots, the leather jacket symbolized rebellion. The impact that László Benedek’s film had on youth culture, film and cinematic celebrity was immeasurable – although its most lasting legacy lies not in Brando’s fantasy, but in the black leather jacket his rebel donned.

At the time, The wild one it was considered such a menace to society that the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) refused to give it a classification for 14 years, citing its description of “unrestricted hooliganism”. The leather jacket itself was banned in American schools, considered a sign of criminal intent in itself. Since then, it has become a clothing choice for bad seeds, rebels and punks. Jeff Nichols’ latest film, Tom Hardy’s drama The Bikerriderswhich is now in UK cinemas, harkens back to this moment in American history – a time when the leather jacket was a symbol of unrest and revolution, but also of belonging.

Before it became a cultural icon, the leather jacket was a utilitarian garment, mostly worn by pilots and highway patrol officers to keep them safe in rain and inclement weather. Irving Schott, who started making raincoats in a New York basement that he sold door to door with his brother, designed the now iconic Perfecto jacket in 1928, naming it after his favorite cigar. It was originally sold through Harley Davidson stores, meaning it was intertwined with biker culture from the start. Schott was later commissioned to produce the uniform for US Air Force pilots, creating the bomber jacket.

“It’s always been associated with dangerous sports,” Roger K Burton, stylist, costume designer, founder of Contemporary Wardrobe and author of Rebellious threads he tells me Dangerous sports and, ironically, authority.

“Leather was tough, it was warm for pilots at cold high altitudes and armies on the move; it didn’t break easily,” emphasizes film critic Christina Newland. “That’s the same reason bikers — who were often veterans — would have adopted it.” After the Second World War, the huge surplus of aviation leather jackets was supplied to the thrift system, making the item financially accessible. Riding Harley Davidson choppers, “even the Hells Angels were imitating the highwaymen,” laughs Burton. This symbol of imposing order, practicality and uniformity would soon be repurposed as an emblem of anti-authoritarianism.

The movies turned biker and bomber jackets from an imposing uniform into a symbol of counterculture and cool. In the The Bikerriders, married-with-kids truck driver Johnny (Hardy) is so inspired by Brando’s attitude in the film that he forms his own motorcycle club, The Vandals. They are bound together by a love of helicopters, beer and an aggressive sense of community, symbolized by their leather jacket, ‘collars’. In the opening scene, The Vandals’ Benny (Austin Butler) is assaulted in a bar for refusing to take him down. “You’d have to kill me to take my jacket off,” he snarls. Their leather jacket (sometimes also denim), is the rebel’s uniform.

‘The Bikeriders’ gang are guys in jeans and leather who don’t look like they stepped out of ‘Grease’

Christina Newland, film critic

The leather jacket, in its various forms, symbolized both rebellion and belonging. In classical counterculture Light rider (1969), Peter Fonda’s Wyatt wears a tight leather jacket with the stars and stripes embroidered on the back as he cruises America’s highways smoking weed and causing trouble. Grease (1978) has two high school gangs: the T-Birds, with their black biker jackets, and the Pink Ladies, with their satin pink ones. In the teen TV series Riverdale, when narrator and local oddball Jughead (Cole Sprouse) waltzes into the school wearing a SouthSide Snake jacket, he immediately spreads fear and awe (or as much fear and awe as Sprouse can spread, I suppose). And in David Lynch’s surreal road movie Wild at heart (1990), Nicolas Cage soliloquizes about his crazy snakeskin jacket: “Have I ever told you that this jacket right here is a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom?”

All of this can be traced back to Brando, whose performance as Johnny The wild one “He spoke for the rising tide of youth culture, the birth of the teenager,” says Newland, “and he did it all in a leather jacket and a swagger in that famous exchange of dialogue: ‘Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?’ “What do you have?”

Brando’s performance directly inspired Elvis Presley’s costume Jailhouse Rock (1957) and although James Dean does not wear a leather jacket Rebel without a cause (1955), was equally influenced by Brando’s work and rebellious attitude.

The wild ones: Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage in David Lynch's 'Wild at Heart'

The wild ones: Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage in David Lynch’s ‘Wild at Heart’ (Shutterstock)

In Britain, leather jackets did not become popular until the early 1960s. Burton traces its origins to rockabilly singer Gene Vincent’s first appearance on British television on Jack Good’s Boy Meets Girls show in 1959, where he was dressed in “full skin”. The Beatles played their infamous set in Hamburg wearing matching leather jackets, which became their stage staple from 1960 to 1962. And of course the warring subcultures of the time were the modifiers, in their suits and parkas, and the rockers , who wore their leather jackets and pompadours, directly inspired by The wild one. Their investigations led to widespread media coverage – youth culture was violent and unruly, it was said, with publications labeling them “enemies of the United Kingdom”.

Years later, sociologist Stanley Cohen studied the phenomenon, coining the term “moral panic” in his 1972 book. Folk devils and moral panics to describe the huge furor caused by fashion-conscious youths shooting each other on the beach. “When something becomes street fashion, there’s always someone who jumps on the bandwagon to make cheap, accessible items for kids,” recalls Burton, who himself provided the fashion clothing for the classic coming-of-age film. Quadrophenia (1978). “There were countless ads for leather jackets on the back of the music press.”

In France, fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent, then head of Dior, tried to turn the leather jacket into a haute couture item. In 1960, inspired by American beatniks and counterculture, he presented a collection that included leather. Critics and buyers, however, were not impressed. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the leather jacket became chic. With pop stars and celebrities such as Madonna, Grace Jones and Cher donning leather jackets and custom leather outfits, it became “exclusive and expensive”. Since then, it has become widely used in a variety of contexts, both on the track and on screen.

Hell for Leather: Norman Reedus in 'The Bikeriders'

Hell for Leather: Norman Reedus in ‘The Bikeriders’ (universal)

Today, a leather jacket is nothing particularly underground, but The Bikerriders it makes sense once again. In the film, the Vandals are “guys in jeans and leather who don’t look like they’re out of Grease,” says Newland. The costumes, designed by Erin Benach, have a “lived-in quality. They are hard-wearing practical items and very worn, with scratches and engine oil stains and scratches.”

Nichols’ film reminds us that there was a time when the leather jacket wasn’t something you could pick up in Zara, but the symbol of an attitude, a lifestyle and a commitment to a cause. It’s a reminder that the leather jacket, ever since Brando walked into that bar with his badass attitude, has always been a statement of intent.

“The Bikeriders” is in theaters