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Worn to Be Wild

Exhibit celebrates a cultural icon: the black leather jacket

By: Anna Borowiecki

  |  Posted: Saturday, Jul 05, 2014 06:00 am

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  • ELEMENTARY OUTFIT – This coat was the first leather outerwear piece manufactured under the Harley-Davidson label. The gear is typical of a late 1920s to early 1930s motorcyclist or aviator.
    ELEMENTARY OUTFIT – This coat was the first leather outerwear piece manufactured under the Harley-Davidson label. The gear is typical of a late 1920s to early 1930s motorcyclist or aviator.
    TOPHER SEGUIN/St. Albert Gazette
  • HAND IN HAND – Elvis Presley's 1956 Harley-Davidson. In 1953, the outlaw biker movie The Wild One had catapulted the black leather jacket into the mainstream.
    HAND IN HAND – Elvis Presley's 1956 Harley-Davidson. In 1953, the outlaw biker movie The Wild One had catapulted the black leather jacket into the mainstream.
  • FLIGHT SUIT – During the Second World War tens of thousands of leather flight jackets were made to outfit American crews. Aviators commonly personalized their jackets with images related to their units, planes, missions or girlie fantasies.
    FLIGHT SUIT – During the Second World War tens of thousands of leather flight jackets were made to outfit American crews. Aviators commonly personalized their jackets with images related to their units, planes, missions or girlie fantasies.
  • FASHION STATEMENT - In the 1960s, top fashion designers began to incorporate the leather jacket into their designs.
    FASHION STATEMENT - In the 1960s, top fashion designers began to incorporate the leather jacket into their designs.

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Worn to Be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket
Runs until Sunday, Sept. 7 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Royal Alberta Museum
12845 – 102 Ave.

Over the past 100 years, heroes, renegades, rock stars, movie celebrities and regular Joes have appropriated the black leather jacket. Daring. Rebellious. Tough. Sexy. Confident. Macho. Those are just a few descriptions applied to it.

Whether studded with spikes, patched with Christian symbols or worn plainly, this pop culture icon screams, “I am my own person, and I’m proud of it.”

The Royal Alberta Museum just opened Worn to Be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket, a touring exhibit of leather jackets on display until Sunday, Sept. 7.

Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson Museum and Seattle’s Experience Music Project (EMP) created this extensive collection. It traces the jacket’s gradual 100-year shift from an essential protective garment to a fashion accessory valued for fun and escapism.

The exhibition of 150 artifacts includes about 50 uniquely customized leather jackets, some with accompanying motorcycles. It is designed as a textile history navigating the past century and revealing how a simple garment came to symbolize different things to different wearers.

“All the jackets come from private collections. When a jacket is pulled out, a different one is put in. The exhibit is always evolving,” said Karl Jones, museum exhibit technician.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s black leathers from Terminator 2: Judgment Day radiate the cyborg’s metallic menace. On the other hand, the jacket worn by Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton during the heavy metal band’s 1986 Turbo tour oozes rebellion.

There’s a salute to the rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap with the black leather jacket worn by actor Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls. This overblown parody of a rock star’s jacket is blanketed in flashy glass jewels and blinding bling.

On the feminine side, the studded leather jacket and hot pants that Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie wore in the Slash video Beautiful Dangerous emanates unpredictable sex appeal.

Early years

The earliest leather jackets manufactured at the beginning of the 20th century were marketed to men, women and children as fashionable overcoats for protection against the elements.

Airplanes, automobiles and motorcycles were open-air machines that demanded protective gear to shield riders and travellers from weather, dirt, bugs and other hazards.

Leather was a natural choice of material. It was strong and durable and had been worn by humans for thousands of years. Mid-thigh leather coats were warm and impervious, and became the rage.

The exhibit highlights this period with a quaint brown 1920s Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a mannequin wearing a mid-thigh leather coat, gauntlet gloves, goggles and lace-up boots.

Military history

By the time the Second World War exploded in Europe, airplanes flew higher and faster. Fighter pilots needed extra protection to survive cold missions (no room for space heaters in sardine-can cockpits).

The longer leather jacket was shortened. Quilted flannel layered the inside for warmth and a large D-shaped zippered pocket was added to the front for easy access. Additional straps, belts and zippers were added so collars and cuffs could be tightened to keep the cold out.

Wartime governments issued them by the hundreds of thousands to military personnel. They were even part of General Patton’s and General MacArthur’s uniforms.

Aviators latched onto this part of the uniform and personalized the jackets with patches and painted the backs with imagery related to their units, planes, missions or girlie fantasies.

Several jackets on display are painted with pin-up girls. One is a diabolical angel, another is a girl riding a falling bomb in a buckin’ bronc style. Another aviator chose to paint a city engulfed in flames on his jacket.

The flight jackets took on the wearers’ identities and evoked a feeling of romance and adventure. For folks at home, flyboys became heroes, men who safeguarded the world’s freedoms. The jacket had shifted from being a functional protective garment to evoking an image of wartime heroes protecting the freedoms of a civilization.

The anti-heroes

After the end of the war, surplus flight jackets and motorcycles were sold on the open market.

“When the air force sold their war surplus, it made the jackets available to people. A lot of riders picked up the motorcycles and rode them for quick transportation. And they were relatively cheap,” said Cathy Roy, curator of Western Canadian History.

Perhaps the most prominent motorcycle on display is Elvis’ shiny red 1956 Harley Hog. A bill shows he paid a princely sum of $1,339.89 on a $50.15 per month payment plan.

As for his plain-cut black leather jacket purchased at J.C. Penney, it’s hanging on a wall behind the motorcycle.

“He bought it at a department store. That shows you how pervasive the jackets were in society. They were totally fashionable. You can see how teens would pick up on it.”

A video shows how Marlon Brando’s starring role in the 1953 hit The Wild Ones catapulted the black leather jacket to pop culture status. In this outlaw biker film, Brando wore a military cap and a black leather jacket. His portrayal of gang leader Johnny Strabler was the quintessential rebel.

Through the power of movies, the black leather jacket was a turning point for motorcycle culture, and it spread across the continent like wildfire. Hollywood churned out movies with black leather-jacketed motorcyclists roaring into towns and terrorizing people.

By the 1960s, the black leather jacket – thanks to the silver screen – had become part of the emerging cultural hero, the teenage delinquent or antihero.

Punk leathers

Rockers searching for a hard-boy image simply slipped on a leather jacket before running on stage. By the 1970s the link between between leather jackets and rockers was firmly established. Sid Vicious of British punk band Sex Pistols further elevated the status of black leathers as a powerful cultural symbol for punkers.

Punk rockers personalized their jackets, often decorating, painting, sewing and patching them with utilitarian objects – Nazi swastikas, pins, needles, chains, roof nails and dry food are a small sampling.

The decorations were a battle cry of anarchy, an expression of their way of life. It was a way to connect with each other and keep those of a different mindset at a distance.

One of the exhibit’s most striking features is a section of about a dozen punk jackets with no two alike. Each is a talisman of individuality, non-conformity, roughness, masculinity and sexuality.

Fashion forward couture

Haute couture is always looking to reinvent itself and by the 1980s the big fashion houses had adopted the black leather jacket into their designs. As is shown in the exhibit, Junya Watanabe, Jean Paul Gauthier, Gianni Versace and Franco Moschino adapted this irreverent pop culture symbol for their runway wares. The badass biker jacket was now a mainstream consumer product.

“Fashion is driven by pop culture and the black leather jacket was a popular item for bikers, and then it was a pickup for rockers for 50 years. It sounds old, but it’s kept reinventing itself,” says Roy.

“Fashion invests in new ideas and it adopted the rebel motorcycle wear and made it mainstream. It still has a rebellious edge, but now it’s a fashion style making a statement.”

In some ways, the black leather jacket looks much the same as it did when The Wild One was filmed. But in the 21st century, wearers are no longer a subset of society.

They are bus drivers, poets, doctors, plumbers, lawyers, real estate agents and politicians interested in stepping outside their normal day-to-day persona.

Each succeeding generation has given the jacket new meaning, but this exhibit sheds new light on how it continues to connect generations for as long as it remains a fashion staple.


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