Exploring the hedonistic twists and turns of the leather jacket, the ultimate weapon of mass-seduction

Hell for Leather
By Tempe Nakiska | Fashion | 14 March 2014

From ‘Or Glory: 21st Century Rockers’ © Horst A Friedrichs

New York’s Museum at FIT traces the of a true icon with the new exhibition, Beyond Rebellion: Fashioning The Biker Jacket. From outlaw kids and biker gangs in America to their ‘bōsōzoku’ equals in Japan, the leather jacket’s rebellious status has rode pop culture’s frantic twists to endure as the ultimate don’t-give-a-fuck item today.

The exhibition follows the genesis of the biker jacket and its journey to the echelons of high fashion via the likes of Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier and the throws of rock ‘n’ roll culture. Student curators Tae In Ahn, Kristen Haggerty, Jasmine C Helm and Danielle Morrin gave us their joint low-down on the history of an icon.

Tempe Nakiska: How did the motorcycle jacket become such an icon of rebellion, sex and power?
Tae In Ahn, Kristen Haggerty, Jasmine C Helm and Danielle Morrin: The motorcycle jacket’s iconic status is a result of its functional design and rich cultural history. German fighter pilots in World War I wore black leather jackets, and this military connection may have created an initial association with power. “Outlaw” biker gangs, rebellious teenagers, and rock and roll musicians in postwar America adopted the jacket as a uniform. In many of these early countercultural groups, the biker jacket developed an affiliation with masculinity and toughness. “Macho” leather subcultures, like BDSM and Leathermen, also adopted the biker jacket, linking it to images of sex and sexuality. More recently, pop culture figures and fashion designers have referenced the biker jacket in creative ways that further enhance the ideas of rebellion, sex, and power.

TN: What role have motorcycle gangs throughout history played in crafting an icon out of the motorcycle jacket?
TIA, KH, JCH and DM: Motorcycle gangs – and the media’s fascination with them – have played a pivotal role in making the biker jacket an image of rebellion. Early motorcycle clubs, beginning with the self-proclaimed “Outlaws” of McCook, IL, in 1935, crafted an image of aggressive nonconformity. Their seemingly rootless and restless lifestyle helped to connect the biker jacket with rebellion. In addition, club members (often former GIs), would customise and embellish the backs of their jackets. This idea was borrowed from the military tradition of painting bomber jackets with personalised details to denote successful missions and squadrons.

Schott, Perfecto jacket, black leather, circa 1980, USA. Museum at FIT purchase.

TN: Who are the icons you would say have been at the height of the jacket’s rise to stardom?
TIA, KH, JCH and DM: “Johnny Strabler,” played by Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), was perhaps the earliest and most significant fictional character to add to the biker jacket’s notoriety. James Dean’s image also became synonymous with the biker jacket—he wore a Perfecto on-and off-screen. Elvis Presley, the “King” of rock and roll, is also connected to the jacket’s iconic image.

TN: Name three films or film stars you feel really heightened the profile of the leather jacket?
TIA, KH, JCH and DM: The Wild One immortalised the image of the bad boy, and helped launch a trend for outlaw motorcycle films. Easy Rider (1969) is another important motorcycle movie. In the film, Peter Fonda’s motorcycle jacket, emblazoned with the American flag, provides an interesting juxtaposition to Dennis Hopper’s suede, fringed style. Mad Max (1979) is also influential. It laid the groundwork for later action movies set in post-apocalyptic worlds in which the renegade hero wears a black biker jacket, such as the Terminator films.

TN: The likes of Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier and Rick Owens played a huge role in the tailoring of the biker jacket’s image. Can you retrace that evolution for us?
TIA, KH, JCH and DM: Yves Saint Laurent was the first designer to feature a motorcycle jacket in a couture collection. He drew inspiration from the styles worn by students on Paris’s Left Bank. Saint Laurent’s ability to find inspiration in the streets and youth culture continued throughout his career. This practice continues today, and can be seen in Hedi Slimane’s Fall 2014 ready-to-wear collection, inspired by 1960s “Mod” culture. Jean Paul Gaultier’s designs are evocative of sex and fetishism, and his body of work explores gender representation, social deviance, and defiance. He has incorporated the motorcycle jacket into many of his collections, and the biker jacket appeared again in his spring 2014 ready-to-wear collection. Rick Owens created his own version of the biker jacket, which he describes as “part Levi’s jacket, part biker jacket, part Madeleine Vionnet – all that, cut apart and somehow Scotch-taped together.” He modified the classic leather jacket into his own refined yet rebellious aesthetic, and re-structured it so that it flatters a wide range of body types.

Beyond Rebellion: Fashioning The Biker Jacket runs until April 5 at Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Seventh Avenue at 27 Street, New York City

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