Leather, rugged boots, and cotton white Ts. What do they all have in common? They’re all fashion trends that have become synonymous with the motorcycle subculture over the past several decades.
Though this suave underworld was once associated with rebellion and subversion, style associated with the biker subculture has become increasingly mainstream in recent years, making its way onto haute couture runways everywhere. The signature biker jacket, with its asymmetrical zip and worn-in appearance, is cropping up everywhere from fashion blogs to New York Fashion Week.
Even motorcyclists themselves admit to spending a fair bit of money on looking good; biker chic is popular for both genders, with women’s and men’s motorcycle jackets retailing for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Biker style is seen as one of the few mainstays in the fashion world. Trends might come and go, but the sexy and sophisticated look of a leather jacket and a faded pair of Levi’s never will.
The history of motorcycle fashion
How did it get to be this way? The timeline is far from linear. It’s kind of hard to imagine biker fashion without leather jackets, but you might be surprised to learn that in the early days, motorcyclists were typically men of considerable means who actually wore sophisticated tweed overcoats—certainly not something you’d see any self-respecting motocross racer do in this day and age. The association between adventure, individuality, and motorcycles has become too strong.
The evolution of biker style has been interesting. While the edgy aesthetic is sure to turn heads, if you’re a rider, you know that that classic Old Hollywood staple, the leather jacket, actually serves a purpose besides making you look cool. Everything from the fabric to the cut is intended to protect your body from road burn.
Around the turn of the century, bikers realized they needed protective gear as their vehicles were getting more powerful and causing more accidents. Motorcycles also began to make their way into the middle class, giving lower-income people the opportunity to ride and integrate a more casual look into the culture.
In 1928, inspired by the thick and durable coats worn by soldiers in the First World War, a New York designer named Irving Schott designed a sturdy leather horsehide jacket specifically for motorcycle riding. It didn’t take long before his design, known as the Perfecto, became wildly popular, as biker culture adopted it at large.
With motorcycle fatalities at least 28 times higher than other types of crashes, every time a rider hits the road, they’re taking a considerable risk. Of course, while motorcycle-related deaths may be overrepresented in American statistics, this doesn’t mean that this hobby has to be dangerous.
Motorcyclists are advised to take precautions, and experts say that dressing properly is the first thing to check off the list. Adding a solid statement jacket made of authentic leather is recommended. There are numerous types and grades of leather, but horsehide is rarely used nowadays; you’re more likely to find a leather aviator or bomber jacket in deerhide, cowhide, bison, or calfskin.
Although every type of leather is built to last, and certainly capable of protecting you from the elements and any scrapes you’ll get into on your bike, one type is favored by motorcyclists worldwide. Since the 1920s, cowhide leather has been the most popular. It’s most commonly used for moto jackets and other protective gear because of its strong and thick texture; it is uniquely water- and dirt-resistant, ensuring it will last for years, even decades.