Style / February 2018

Style 101: The Motorcycle Jacket

We explore how the form-follows-function origins and rebel DNA of this classic menswear essential have remained relevant.

Marlon Brando's Johnny Strabler wears a black leather Schott Perfecto One Star with an asymmetric zip closure, shoulder epaulettes and a belted waist paired with denim jeans and a motorcycle cap in The Wild One, 1953.

Origins

In the canon of iconic American garments, jeans means Levi Strauss, Hanes owns the plain white tee, Brooks Brothers has got a lock on the button-down, sneakers equals Converse, and as for the leather jacket — that’s trademarked by Schott NYC.

Founded in 1913 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side by Russian immigrants Irving and Jack Schott, the company got its start making raincoats. But by the late 1920s, responding to the growing popularity of motorcycles (which had proven a useful tool in World War I and subsequently became a popular alternative form of transport for civilians), Irving created a leather jacket designed specifically for bikers. Nine decades later, it continues to serve as the seminal template for biker jacket styling.

Named the Perfecto, after Irving’s favourite cigar, this rugged protective garment featured a doubled-over front and generous collar for warmth, an asymmetric zip closure (Schott claims to be the first leather jacket maker to have used this type of fastening; buttons were previously de rigeur) positioned off-centre to provide greater comfort when hunched over a bike’s gas tank, a belted waist for a snug fit, and epaulettes. Early iterations were cut from near indestructible horsehide (still used by the vintage-influenced Aero Leather on its bikers today), while supple-but-tough steer leather was later used.

Motorcycling — and the leather jacket that became synonymous with it — wasn’t always considered the province of devil-may-care rebels. It only began to get bad to the bone after World War II, when a segment of returned servicemen struggled with the slow pace and low risk of civilian life, and took to super-quick, 100-plus mile-per-hour motorbikes in pursuit of a death-defying adrenalin rush. Loose associations of like-minded bikers began forming into clubs, a number of which remain active today, what police call Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

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Christian Barker

Christian Barker is The Rake's Asia editor-at-large, a frequent contributor to this site, and an enthusiastic consumer of fine whiskies, sashimi and classic disco music - ideally in unison.