Wear your colours

The Bikeriders costume designer Erin Benach takes us through the film’s authentic biker gear
By Barry Pierce | Fashion | 25 June 2024

First published in 1968, Danny Lyon’s The Bikeriders is a photo book that documented the lives and styles of the members of Chicago’s Outlaws Motorcycle Club. Taking these images as inspiration, director Jeff Nichols’ new film, The Bikeriders, sees Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, and Jodie Comer bring those iconic images to life through a story of love, rebellion and a whole lot of leather.

In the world of biker gangs, your “colours” are the patches and badges that are attached to your vest that act, essentially, as your identification. What you wore and how you decorated yourself was an intrinsic part of being in a gang. And, as is what happens with Austin Butler’s Benny at the very beginning of The Bikeriders, wearing your colours in the wrong place can get you in serious trouble. To help decipher the complex language of biker colours and the important role that the clothing plays in the film, we caught up with Erin Benach, the costume designer behind the authentic denim and leather of The Bikeriders.


Barry Pierce: When the offer came up to work on The Bikeriders, how did you react?
Erin Benach: I’d done two movies with Jeff [Nichols], so I knew the script was floating in the ether waiting to get made. He and I had talked about it years and years ago and I was like, “Jeff, that’s the one, that’s the one we gotta make,” because I knew it was such an exciting project for me to sink my teeth into. It was also a project where I knew I could really help tell the story, I love it when costumes can do that.

BP: The Bikeriders is based on the photobook by Danny Lyon, did that mean the the research process was somewhat more straightforward since you were working directly from these images?
EB: We definitely did have quite a bit of specific reference imagery at our disposal, and we were using those characters in the book as inspiration for our characters. But there was still so much information missing. The full silhouettes, the boots, there was a lot missing. So we had to go much deeper, find images from the era as well as images of other biker gangs. There’s actually a really great book called Portraits of American Bikers that focuses on a Michigan biker gang. Michigan, not being that far from Chicago where our biker gang was based, it had a lot more clues about the outfits.

It was really interesting when I was doing the research, I found this Life magazine article about the Hells Angels on the West Coast and they looked really different. They existed at the same time as the Outlaws in Chicago but they had faux-hawks and wore double jeans as protection. The silhouettes were so different. So we used that for Funny Sonny’s character [Norman Reedus] because he comes and joins the gang from the West Coast.

BP: I was really fascinated by how much the bikers embellished their outfits. There are lots of chains and medals and patches, intricate embroidery. It’s sort of funny to think of these very masculine men doing delicate needlework to decorate their vests. Are the embellishments we see in the film actual pieces from the era or were they created for the film?
EB: We couldn’t actually use anything from the era, because it is copyrighted material. Too much time had passed too, there are very few original patches from the era. So we really had to just make up our own. I contacted some people online to make speciality patches that captured the ethos of the originals. There was a person on my team who was working on just patches alone, because we had to make multiples of everything because of all the stunt doubles.

GALLERYBTS on The Bikeriders

“There was a person on my team who was working on just patches alone, because we had to make multiples of everything because of all the stunt doubles.”

BP: Was it the bikers themselves sewing these patches?
EB: Yeah, they were doing it themselves. They were crafty guys. For example, Cal [Boyd Holbrook] was pretty detailed and pretty in-depth, he’d build carburettors, he’d build engines. So he’d go to town on his vest. If you notice, Benny [Austin Butler] has very little embellishments, we kept it minimal because he’s the laissez-faire, ‘I don’t care’ type.


BP: Could you actually take me through the costume story you had for the three leads — Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, and Jodie Comer
EB: For Austin, it was about figuring out a silhouette that looked right on him. I knew certain things from the beginning with his character, I knew that his character in the book wore that cut-off black t-shirt, I knew that he’d have this chain, his bike chain, that he’d lock up his bike with and he’d wear around his waist. But the final silhouette was something I actually had to find on Austin. He wears clothes very well, he can do skinny, he can do baggy, but from our initial fittings it became clear that we’d have to dress him kind of droopy for the period, for his leather jacket and denim to be not so fitted. Because when we tried going fitted with Austin, he started looking too modern, weirdly enough.

For Tom Hardy, his character in the film is very influenced by Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One. So we took that as a cue and took the silhouettes for Johnny’s character more from the 1950s than from the 60s. The idea was that he’d be the only one who dressed like that, his character is a little older so we wanted to show that difference.

BP: Yeah there is a very distinct difference in the way Tom Hardy dresses compared to Austin Butler and that really conveys so much about their personalties. I want to talk about Jodie Comer, I love how she looks in the film. Her looks are very distinctly 60s, a style that you do not see anymore with the hair and everything. What were the reference points for her costumes?
EB: It was really important to have her being a grounded time period reference point, you know? Even though she met Benny and became involved in the bike riders, she did not re-do her whole personality and her whole look. That’s not who Kathy was, she was a person of her own beliefs and needs. It was important to Jeff, Jodie and I that she maintained her character throughout this whole experience. Dressing people in denim, that could be any time period, but we wanted Kathy to root us in the era. Brigitte Bardot was definitely an influence, especially on all the knitwear. I really like the way it was very fitted. I kind of started doing this interpretation of what if Kathy did become kind of influenced by what the bikers were wearing, what would be her interpretation of a denim silhouette? It would be a little 60s and a little bike rider. So we did that as the film went on.

BP: For your initial research process for the project, was there a lot of going to charity shops and surplus stores, is that how it’s done
EB: It really is. I was actually in London for a bunch of the research for The Bikeriders because a lot of our actors were based there. I went to Camden Market and I’d talk to a guy who owned a store there, then he’d be like, “Oh, I know a guy who does a lot of leather” and then I’d go talk to that guy and he’d be like “I have a friend who has a warehouse two hours outside the city.” You follow a trail like you’re an investigative reporter.

The Bikeriders is out in cinemas now.

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