Posted on 21 September 2019
When we take a closer look at some of today’s most well-known garments we often find partnerships with large institutions, a debut on the big screen or sometimes, more simply, a misconception. Once such prized item is the leather jacket. While the jacket retains much of its association with bikies and bikers, few know the extent of which Harley Davidson played in its heritage.
In the early 20s when international military were developing leather flight jackets, Harley Davidson had also been busy developing a protective line of its own. Much like the flight jacket, early attempts to protect riders were made without an afterthought of style; rather they were designed for purpose. The same year the iconic film – The Man From Snowy River released in 1920, Harley Davidson produced its first rider’s coat: A knee-length garment made of reversible leather. It came off the back of a full body ‘motorcycle sport suit’ developed the year before. The biker’s jacket, in the style we’ve come to know, came about in 1928 at the hand of Irving Schott, the son of a Russian migrant. The Perfecto, it was called–a name which came from Schott’s favourite cigar.
In much the same fashion as the trench coat, Schott’s fashion career began in 1913 developing raincoats in the basement of an apartment in Manhattan with his brother, Jack. On the back of Schott’s success with Harley Davidson, he won a Department of Defence contract, commissioned to design bomber jackets for the United States Air Force ahead of World War II. Scott’s contract would last 60 years. At the same time, and adding to their popularity, Harley Davidson began stitching club logos and other forms of embroidery on their jackets.
Marlon Brando dons the Perfecto in The Wild Ones, 1954. Image: The Gentlemans Journal.
Post-WWII was when the leather jacket made its way into Hollywood. Retaining its name – the Perfecto, its first appearance on screen was on the back of Marlon Brando and his roaring Triumph Thunderbird in the 1954 hit The Wild Ones. From here leather jackets would earn a rebellious affiliation and a nation wide banning in schools across the US. The reason: They symbolised hoodlum, according to the Schott NYC brand. When Rebel Without A Cause released just 12 months later the jacket rose to the peak of its popularity. To this day, much of James Dean’s legacy is remembered in his famous cherry red leather bomber.
In the 70s and 80s leather jackets would join their second wave of rebellion. Rising from the basements of New York City, leather jackets spread across the nation with anarchists and rockstars alike. They became the uniform of choice for the punk rock movement. The Sex Pistols, Blondie, Joan Jett and The Ramones all sported the revolutionary jacket as the movement shook the world.
Edward Norton sits beside his alter ego Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) in the 1999 cult classic Fight Club.
When times began to settle and international trade began to rise, the leather jacket’s popularity did too. Schott began to ship internationally and Harley Davidson increased its production. The leather jacket, in turn, kept its place in the biker community for its rugged, protective strength while it slowly became accepted in modern society. To this day, and in the words of the Schott brand, the jacket maintains much of its heritage while simultaneously representing the rebel in all of us.