The Rule-Breaking History of the Motorcycle Jacket

The Rule-Breaking History of the Motorcycle Jacket

From Hollywood rebels to high fashion runways, the motorcycle jacket has come quite a long way.

From Hollywood rebels to high fashion runways, the motorcycle jacket has come quite a long way.

Text: Justin Ragolia

You've seen them in grainy black-and-whites of the all-American bad boys of yesteryear as they rode their way towards Hollywood royalty. They've been draped over the shoulders of punk pioneers, gasoline-scented gangsters, rock-and-roll legends, and the polished celebrities of today.

It seems that no matter where you're fixed in time or place, pulling on a slick motorcycle jacket feels more like donning a layer of armor than a streetwear staple or coveted high-fashion piece. When worn properly, it becomes a part of you as it stretches and molds to your body's shape. But why exactly do we feel so rugged, yet refined and sumptuous when wearing the tried-and-true cut of calfskin, modeled after the Schott Brothers' 1928 "Perfecto"? There's a rich aesthetic and cultural history to be explored here, and one that's been combed through for inspiration by the world's top fashion houses time and time again.

IMAGE COURTESY OF PHIL STERN ARCHIVES

Made famous by the on-screen mavericks from Hollywood's golden age, most notably McQueen, Brando, and Dean, the wide-lapelled cut of leather gained popularity among counterculture consumers of the 70's and 80's after the then tough-guy kit was ironically embraced by the willowy Ramone brothers, who're often cited as the founders of the punk movement. Stans of The Sex Pistols also geared towards the asymmetrical zip and drooping, undone belt after the band's lead Sid Vicious, known for his charismatically strained, anarchist vocals, marked his own up with nail polish, studs, pins, and political slogans, forever tying the jacket to the British punk scene.

IMAGE COURTESY OF RAMONES PRODUCTIONS, INC.
IMAGE COURTESY OF @RETRO_BAND

It was then adopted by some of the most badass rock 'n roll ladies of the 80's, namely Blondie's Debbie Harry and the original riot grrrl Joan Jett, who slipped the symbol of subversiveness on like a second skin, inspiring the short-haired, fishnet-clad frontrunners of the third wave feminist movement to do the same. This fanned the flames of the jacket's counterculture image and brooding, uncompromising associations, boosting its ubiquity among critics of the economic and political establishment.

The shift away from its original emphasis on practicality and simplicity made it tough for the average guy to pull off in the 90's though; it was decidedly tricky for the traditional moto jacket to find a place in a decade obsessed with anti-fashion and experimentation after it'd evolved as an overtly political fashion statement. Perhaps the average menswear consumer grew frustrated by the garment's supposed promise to grant instant cool even when worn with an otherwise tasteless fit as well. Or maybe it was the fact that the moto jacket-wearing thug had become a filmic cliche following the tired age of leather-clad greasers, punks, and tough-guy extras.

Enter the fashion world's playmakers and rule-breakers in the early 2000's. Seeing potential in the dyed hide's lasting connection to all things both dangerous and sexy, luxury fashion houses took to sourcing rare skins from world-class tanneries to produce their own opulent renditions of the piece. Ever-familiar houses with confirmed legend-status like Saint Laurent, Rick Owens, Pierre Balmain, and Maison Martin Margiela come to mind as leading the charge here, and it became clear that this territory had been begging to be explored.

IMAGE COURTESY OF MARGIELA

The goal? To recenter the jacket's original design philosophy: an emphasis on versatility, practicality, and durability, while adapting the silhouette for the modern era of menswear. This meant doing away with antiquated details in service of a streamlined, minimalist aesthetic focused on adaptability, and more importantly, letting the quality of the leather do all the talking. The idea being to ditch the notion that the jacket should lend any fanboy that wears it an air of unquestioned toughness, in favor of acknowledging the simple truth that a fitted motorcycle jacket looks damn good with tonal, understated kits and loud patterning alike, making for a customized piece of outerwear armor that develops character and becomes an integral part of the rotation as the years go by.

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